Scattered over nearly two million square miles in an ocean region largely thought of as the South Pacific, 33 atolls and one island, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands Colony, became the Republic of Kiribati in 1979. Within this vast area lie the Line Islands, a group of mostly atolls, approximately 1,000 miles south of the Hawaiian Islands.
The Line Islands were once valuable for their guano deposits, but the islands now have coconut groves, airfields, and meteorological stations.
The northern part of the Line Island chain, where the Scripps Oceanography expedition is occurring, is comprised of more remote and less inhabited land formations. An atoll, a reef, and three islands, with a total population of less than 13,000, make up this northern area, perfect for exploration and scientific discovery.
The Scripps science team will begin its month-long voyage at Kiritimati, also known as Christmas Island, the largest of the Line Islands and farthest south on the expedition itinerary. Kiritimati is 222 square miles and has a population of about 10,000. Its chief agricultural product is copra, dried coconut meat yielding coconut oil. The atoll was explored by Capt. James Cook in 1777, annexed by Great Britain in 1888, and included in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony in 1919. British nuclear tests were conducted on the atoll in 1957 and 1958 and U.S. tests in 1962. Because of its size and area, it is believed to be the oldest atoll in the world.
There are four villages on the atoll: London, Tabwakea, Banana (Banana Wells), and Poland. Many of the place names are from Father Emmanuel Rougier, a former French priest who leased the island from 1917 to 1939 and planted some 800,000 coconut trees. La colline de Joe (Joe's Hill) is the highest point on the atoll, less than 40 feet (12 meters).
The next spot for the expedition will be Tabuaeran, also called Fanning Island, with a population of about 1,900. Visited by the American explorer Edmund Fanning in 1798, it was renamed Tabuaeran when it gained independence as part of Kiribati in 1979. Copra is the island's only export. Residents of overcrowded islands in Kiribati have been resettled on Tabuaeran. Reef fishes and shellfishes, babai, coconut, pigs, chickens, and seaweed (limu) grown in lagoons are local foods, supplementing a main diet of imported rice and tinned meats. The maximum elevation is about 10 feet (three meters) above high tide.
Heading further into remote and uninhabited lands, the Scripps explorers will next reach Palmyra Atoll. The Palmyra region is currently administered by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service and the land is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Truly uninhabited, there is a crew of about 10 residents who maintain the island for ocean science research. Palmyra is an atoll about two square miles that was first visited by Americans in 1802, and later claimed by the Hawaiian kingdom (1862) and Great Britain (1889). It was annexed by the United States in 1898.
As the Scripps voyage heads further along the island chain, the science team will conduct research off Teraina (Washington Island), a three-square mile island with a population of about 900. The island was first sighted on June 12, 1798, by the American explorer Edmund Fanning who named the island for George Washington. Also called Prospect Island, the name was changed to Teraina after Kiribati gained independence in 1979.
The final stop on the expedition will be the uninhabited Kingman Reef, a mostly submerged reef of less than one square mile. The U.S. annexed the reef in 1922. Its sheltered lagoon served as a way station for flying boats on Hawaii-to-American Samoa flights during the late 1930s. There are no terrestrial plants on the reef, which is frequently awash, but it does support abundant and diverse marine fauna and flora. In 2001, the waters surrounding the reef out to 12 nautical miles were designated a U.S. National Wildlife Refuge.
The Line Islands are remote and far from bustling cities and active airports. If a traveler were to leave Christmas Island and sail directly west, the next land mass encountered, nearly 1,000 miles away, would be Howland Island, where history's most famous female aviator, Amelia Earhart, mysteriously disappeared in 1937. In between Howland and Christmas islands is expansive open ocean, perfect for conducting ocean science research, but nowhere to land a plane.
Closer to the Line Islands' atolls and reefs, a Scripps-led scientific expedition is now deciphering other mysteries of the tropical seas.
Contributing sources include: http://www.answers.com