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Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra atoll is a regular coral atoll and consists of approximately 52 islets, which enclose three large lagoons and one very small one; the deepest place is in the first (western) lagoon with 28 fathoms. In one of the lagoons are several small coral islets which are submerged at high tide, but exposed at low tide. The highest point is on Eastern Islet and does not exceed 5 feet. Palmyra atoll is approximately 5-1/2 sea miles long, by 1-1/3 sea miles wide. The largest islet comprises 46 acres, while the smallest covers only 0.47 of an acre.

Several isolated islands in Oceania, some uninhabited, were under United States jurisdiction, including Howland, Baker, and Jarvis islands, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra and Johnston atolls. Devastation caused by World War II was obviously most extensive in areas within the combat zones. Four uninhabited central Pacific atolls — Canton, Palmyra, Christmas, and Johnston — became air transport stations. In a treaty of friendship signed in September 1979, the United States relinquished its claim to the eight Phoenix Islands and five central and southern Line Islands. The two northernmost Line Islands — Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll — as well as Jarvis, Baker, and Howland islands, which lay between the Gilbert and Line islands, remained United States territory, however.

Palmyra also has a somewhat unusual history, compared to the other islands in the PRIA. It was discovered in 1798 by Edmund Fanning and named in 1802 when the ship Palmyra was blown ashore. Parmyra island was discovered by Capt. Sawle, of the American ship Palmyra, in 1802. He described it as 14 miles in extent East and West, and about half that in breadth; flat; with a lagoon in its centre 7 miles long, in which the tide regularly ebbed and flowed; and uninhabited. The Palmyra anchored off the N.W. side of the island, 1/2 of a mile from the shore, in 20 fathoms. Turtle were abundant, but no fresh water could be found.

In 1816 a Spanish pirate ship, which was carrying plunder from Incan temples, was wrecked there. Palmyra was claimed by the United States under the Guano Act of 1859, but no guano mining was done because the rainy weather inhibits the accumulation of guano. Formal possession was taken of the island by the American Guano Company in 1859; and by the Hawaiian Government in 1862. Capt. Bent, in his letter to the Hawaiian Minister of the Interior, reports that “the island is 10 miles in length, and 6 miles in breadth; the eastern end rises about 20 feet above the level of the sea; the landing-place is on the west end, and a vessel can lie in perfect safety in 3 fathoms water. The trees on the island are cocoa-nut, puhala, and a species of koa. All kinds of vegetables will grow on the island, and I planted some beans, corn, and water-melons. I erected a dwelling-house, and also a curing house for biche-de-mer, leaving one white man and four Hawaiians on the island.”

Palmyra island, without sufficient reason, had been supposed to be identical with Samarang. island; the descriptions do not agree, and the great difference is in the latitude, not in the longitude.

In the year 1889, Palmyra was annexed to Great Britain by Commander Nichols of H.B.M.S. Cormorant which was cruising in the neighborhood of the Island. Commander Nichols, finding the place without any inhabitants, took possession in the name of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, Defender of the faith, etc.

It did not remain long in the possession of Great Britain, if indeed it can be said ever to have been a part of the British Empire, for when the United States of America annexed the Hawaiian Islands, Palmyra was specifically mentioned in the President’s message to Congress (Senate Dec. 16, 1898, 55th Congress, 3rd session, transmitting the report of the Hawaiian commission, in which the names of all the Islands (including Palmyra) are given.

Palmyra was once in the possession of the Pacific Navigation Company, who sent a man named Dillon in September, 1885, under contract for one year to Palmyra. He agreed for that space of time to cut firewood, catch shark, fish, birds, etc., to plant coconuts, make a strong effort to find pearl shell, coral, etc. Dillon and his wife went to Palmyra, where they remained one year, returning to Honolulu the latter part of 1886 or early in 1887.

In the Land Court of the Territory of Hawaii is the following description of the above mentioned property: “Palmyra Island north Pacific Ocean consists of a group of islets surrounded by a coral reef which extends about 5; sea miles in an easterly and westerly direction and is about 1; sea miles wide. The point of observation is about midway between the ends of the reef on the south side of the island and is north lati*ude 5° 49' 01" and west longitude 162° 11' 29".”

In 1911 the U.S. annexed Palmyra a second time. Numerous transfers of private and commercial ownership occurred between 1862 and 1922. In 1922 Palmyra was sold to the Fullard-Leo family by Judge Henry Cooper. During WWI the U.S. Navy used the atoll as a naval air facility. In 1947 the Fullard-Leo family defeated the government’s claim to Palmyra by a U.S. Supreme Court order. Palmyra was specifically excluded from the State of Hawaii when the Territory became a state in 1959, making it the only privately owned territory in the U.S. In 1961 President Kennedy issued an executive order vesting administration of Palmyra to the DOI. In 1974 the atoll became briefly famous when a yachting couple was murdered there, lawyer and author Vincent Bugliosi published And the Sea Will Tell and a television movie was made. Palmyra was sold by the Fullard-Leo family to the Nature Conservancy in 2000. In January of 2001, the USFWS extended further protection to Palmyra when it designated 450 acres of land and 480,647 acres of lagoons, coral reefs and submerged lands and waters as a NWR. The Nature Conservancy established a scientific research station at Palmyra in 2005 with accommodations for up to 20 researchers.

On the western side, Palmyra is bounded by an extensive flat coral reef, consisting of huge coral blocks or heads which rise to the surface of the water. This coral flat extends about 3 miles from the shore line, at which distance the depth of water is about 6-7 fathoms at high tide. The coral heads which issue from that depth nearly to the surface of the water are often 5 feet or more in diameter; they become more numerous near the shore, where the water becomes very shallow. It is at this place only that a landing can be effected, and that only at high tide; at any other time no boat can pass over this coral flat nearer than to within a mile of the shore.

A reef, over which the waves break continuously, extends the whole northern side of the island or group of islets, as well as along the whole length of the south and southeastern sides. On the latter side the breakers, which roar day and night, are only a few hundred feet from shore. The protection afforded by the land from the prevailing southeasterly and northeasterly winds makes it less dangerous for vessels to anchor at the western end, where was located the only boat landing.

On the lagoon side, the islets are often surrounded by a narrow strip of perfectly white sand, which runs out into sand spits; at high tide this sand is covered with only about 10 inches of water, at low tide the depth of water is less than an inch, and in certain places the sand is exposed. It is on these fiat sand spits, which reach the edge of the lagoon, that Holothurians abound in great numbers, mostly the black ones; the red ones are rather rare. In these warm shallow waters large balloon fish swim lazily about, blowing themselves up when touched and rolling about helplessly; this is also the home of the eel, of which there are several species.

In the shallow bays where the bottom is muddy, thousands of mullets swim about, often jumping out of the water. Nothing is more interesting than to watch the marine life and fishes on the edge of the lagoons where the water is clear as crystal and where one can see the bottom several fathoms below. The most marvelously colored fishes abound. The shark is, however, not absent and frequents the narrow channels between the islets, which are usually waist deep. It is better to walk around these channels, especially at high tide, when walking from one islet to the other, rather than to cross them.

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