Passages to Palmyra
Friday | August 19, 2005
I was "volunteered" by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to visit Palmyra. I served as the team's oceanographer and environmental specialist. We needed the seaplane to transport our 9-member team to Palmyra for a 4-day preliminary field study in January 1979. The old WW II runway had long been swallowed up by vegetation. The U.S. Depts. of Energy and State were planning a "secret" assessment of storing nuclear spent power reactor fuel rods at Palmyra, as part of President Carter's international nuclear non-proliferation policy. The rods would be gathered from Asian countries and stored in concrete igloos, with the atoll serving as an international repository for nuclear waste.
Six hours after our plane left Honolulu, our pilots discovered that their "new" aeronautical charts did not extend to the 400 remaining miles to Palmyra! Abruptly they diverted our destination to Fanning, 190 miles to the southeast. They planned to "island-hop" us back to Palmyra the following day. However, we nearly crash-landed on Fanning when the landing gear refused to lock until the very last moment. We were stranded there for 2 days while pilot-geophysicist, Marty Vitousek, found jeep brake fluid to replenish the plane's landing gear hydraulics, and then replaced the plane's burned out starter motor. Finally, on the morning of our third day, we were again airborne, apprehensive and Palmyra bound.
After circling Palmyra once, the plane dropped altitude quickly and slammed down hard in West Lagoon, barely missing a shallow reef, and then bouncing back up in the air, as it began to leap frog across the lagoon. The exploding sea spray obliterated our view, the plane pitching violently. We clutched our seats and prayed. Finally, the plane settled low and slowed to a stop. Our shaken pilots tossed out the plane's nose anchor in the middle of the lagoon rather than risk any damage by beaching it. I was "volunteered" again, this time by Marty, to assemble the new inflatable boat and outboard motor- our ferry craft between plane and shore. Two large cardboard boxes were hoisted up through the ceiling hatch, and for nearly 3 hours we assembled the boat and motor on the wings and fuselage of the plane. From our perch we began to notice the ever-increasing number of sharks circling us. By nightfall and after 9 round trips in the inflatable boat, we all managed to get ashore with our equipment and camping gear. I walked down a path and discovered a ramshackle collection of boards euphemistically called the "Palmyra Yacht Club". I found two 6-foot long gray tables stamped "U.S. Navy" and put one on top of the other. I hung my mosquito net over the top table and slept on the lower table to distance myself from the rats scurrying around on the clubhouse floor. I slept not a wink.
Early next morning of our only full day at the atoll, the two DC State Department guys refused to snorkel with me- or even dip their toes in the "shark-infested" waters. Although they had removed their ties, they were still wearing their suits, leather shoes, and lugging brief cases. Thus, I loaded my 40 lb. backpack with water, candy bars, snorkeling gear, cameras, and a walkie-talkie and set off alone to circumnavigate the atoll by foot, the first scientific observations of the atoll in nearly 20 years. The ocean beaches were white and pristine while many thousands of mostly Sooty Terns, Red-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies, and Black Noddies were guarding nests and nestled in virtually every branch of every tree. Spectacular groves of mature Pisonia forests covered the larger southern and eastern islands, and virtually all signs of the old paved Navy perimeter road had vanished. Magnificent White-tailed Tropic Birds and White Terns fluttered in the upper beach forest canopy, especially at my favorite spot, off Whippoorwill Islet. Lush bird nest ferns, lauai ferns, hardwood trees and coco palms filled all other open spaces between the forests. Sandy shallows and rocky coral reef flats fringed the lagoon and ocean coasts of the islets, with hundreds bonefish and small black-tip reef sharks patrolling the shore, and dozens of green sea turtles floating further offshore in shallow pools. It was hard to imagine that 6,000 servicemen had once occupied this place. Except for the remains of a hospital, barbed wire, concrete pill-boxes, debris piles and radio-antennae, Mother Nature had reclaimed Palmyra.
Later I cautiously snorkeled alone in the channel with Marty maneuvering the inflatable boat no more than 3 feet behind my fins. I was ready to leap into it should any large shark appear too friendly or unfriendly. I spotted my first corals and nervously accomplished a brief snorkel survey of the ocean reef outside the passage. My glimpses revealed spectacular coral thickets, large roving bands of convict tangs, and a few disinterested sharks.
Next morning, our plane finally lifted off the water, leap-frogging and barely missing several shallow coral heads, before turning north to Hawaii. Later, Marty and I privately disclosed the purpose of our trip to the press and owners of Palmyra. The government soon abandoned the project due to public, political, and landowner opposition. Palmyra was again left alone.
After surveying and photographing underwater dump sites in the lagoon, I turned my attention to snorkeling the reefs systematically, collecting corals and underwater photos at 20 sites. I later listed ~100 coral species from the atoll, already more than that of any other nearby island or atoll.
One morning Ainsley took me to an amazing pool off the east side of East Islet, where dozens of large green sea turtles were milling about in murky waters. We visited the spectacular coral gardens that filled the reef pools off the shallow SE reefs of the atoll. I revisited the outer ship passage and took photos and notes of the thriving coral and fish populations at nearby Penguin Spit. Then we took a skiff to the outer reaches of the western submerged reef terrace where flourishing fields of fragile staghorn and table coral thickets extended unbroken for miles. I was awe of the extent of the primal beauty of Palmyra's ocean reefs. Visiting crew of the yacht Serendipity anchored off Penguin Spit invited me on my first-ever scuba dive at Palmyra. We swam through the surf and down the reef slope to a depth of 80 feet. It was a truly magnificent moment to see manta rays, sharks, red snappers, and large jacks frolicking in the large transparent swells passing overhead, and the luxuriance of corals and reef fish near the bottom.
During our final evening, a magnificent rainbow appeared to windward, extending a multi-colored beam that touched the lagoon, and emblazoned the sky- one of those unforgettable moments in life. I managed to take a photo before the rainbow disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, like a vision. At that very moment I vowed to seek protection for this special place.
January 1991 to the present
Earlier, in November 1998, while working at the East-West Center, I was asked to help TNC and FWS to assess carrying capacity and collect photos at Palmyra for FWS and TNC publicity, planning and fundraising. I was shocked by the near absence of sharks and complete collapse of the magnificent fields of stag-horn coral thickets that once dominated the vast western reef terrace. It was clear that Palmyra was facing new challenges in a modern and more crowded world. Unauthorized commercial fishing is still active within Palmyra's Refuge boundary, and special interests are applying political pressure to reduce the Refuge boundary from 12 to 3 miles, clearly inadequate for reef protection. Globally, market pressures tempt unscrupulous fishers to poach high value reef resources, and alien insects threaten the beach forests. Global climate change may be responsible for more frequent or severe coral bleaching events at the atoll.
Palmyra is the only "wet" atoll in the world that remains uninhabited despite its abundant rainfall and rich food resources. It serves as an important refuge for depleted and endangered reef species (sea turtles, giant clams, pearl oysters, Napoleon wrasses, bump-head parrot fish, coconut crabs, mellon-head whales). Palmyra still supports old grove stands of beach forest that have been cleared from most other atolls and coral islands. Palmyra supports some of the largest nesting and migratory populations of sea and shore birds. But she is still infested with rats and other aliens.
Palmyra was blessed for thousands of years as a remote backwater area of the Pacific, bypassed by early voyagers and ignored by modern development pressures. After 26 years and 15 visits later, I realize that external forces now threaten Palmyra with irreversible change in a shrinking world. Large pristine, wilderness areas are fast disappearing in this era of unprecedented technology and population growth and resource exploitation. It will take the concerted efforts of many diverse and vigilant people to protect the special places like Palmyra. We are all part of the ecosystem of Earth. It is everybody's responsibility to do their best to protect and sustain it, and place this responsibility above personal gain and interest.
It has been a great privilege to experience Palmyra and play a role in contributing to her protection. I look forward to continue working with UNESCO, SIO other Consortium members, TNC, FWS, and NOAA in strengthening protection, and awareness of the needs and values for Palmyra. The Palmyra Yacht Club serves as a good symbol for Palmyra's future. The club still stands today, due to the tender loving care of many visitors over many years. Go visit the club. Will future passages find Palmyra and her denizens healthy and thriving? Time will tell.
—Jim Maragos, USFWS