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Palmyra Atoll

Background Information

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Palmyra Atoll - Landsat Image N-03-05 2000 (1:50,000)
Palmyra Atoll - NOAA Nautical Chart (1:47,500)
Orthographic projection over Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra Atoll is an incorporated atoll administered by the United States government. The atoll is 4.6 square miles (12 km²), and it is located in the Northern Pacific Ocean at 5°53′N 162°5′W. Geographically, Palmyra is one of the Northern Line Islands (southeast of Kingman Reef and north of Kiribati Line Islands), located almost due south of the Hawaiian Islands, roughly halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa. Its 9 miles (14.5 km) of coastline has one anchorage known as West Lagoon. It consists of an extensive reef, two shallow lagoons, and some 50 sand and reef-rock islets and bars covered with vegetation—mostly coconut trees, Scaevola, and tall Pisonia trees.

The islets of the atoll are all connected, except Sand Island in the West and Barren Island in the East. The largest island is Cooper Island in the North, followed by Kaula Island in the South. The northern arch of islets is formed by Strawn Island, Cooper Island, Aviation Island, Quail Island, Whippoorwill Island, followed in the East by Eastern Island, Papala Island, and Pelican Island, and in the South by Bird Island, Holei Island, Engineer Island, Tananger Island, Marine Island, Kaula Island, Paradise Island and Home Island (clockwise). Average annual rainfall is approximately 175 inches (4,445 mm) per year. Daytime temperatures average 85°F (29°C) year round.

Political status

Palmyra's North Beach

Palmyra is an incorporated territory of the United States, meaning that it is subject to all provisions contained in the United States Constitution and is permanently under U.S. sovereignty. However, it is also an unorganized territory as there is no Congressional act specifying how it should be governed; the only relevant law simply gives the President the discretion to administer the island as best seen fit (see Section 48 of the Hawaii Omnibus Act, Pub. L. 86–624, July 12, 1960, 74 Stat. 411, attached as a note to former sections 491 to 636 of Title 48, United States Code ).

The issue of Palmyra's governance is generally a moot point, as there is no indigenous population remaining nor any reason to think that there will be one in the future. It remains therefore currently the only unorganized incorporated U.S. territory. It is privately owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed as a nature reserve, but administered from Washington, D.C. by the Office of Insular Affairs, United States Department of the Interior. The surrounding waters, out to the 12-mile (22.2 km) limit, were transferred to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and designated as the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in 2001. Defense is the responsibility of the United States.

For statistical purposes, Palmyra is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands.

Palmyra Airport, Cooper Island ( ICAO code PLPA)

There is no current economic activity on the island. Many of the roads and causeways on the atoll were built during World War II. All are now unserviceable and overgrown. There is a roughly 2,200 yard (2,000 m) long, unpaved and unimproved airstrip on Cooper Island (Palmyra Airport, ICAO code PLPA). Various abandoned World War II-era structures are found on the island.

The atoll has been manned by a group of scientists, Nature Conservancy staff and volunteers, and Fish & Wildlife representatives (totalling between four and 20 in all) for the last several years. A series of improvements in 2004 consisted of new two-person bungalows and showers for the island's inhabitants. Water is collected from the roof of a concrete building not far from the main living area of the scientists. Communal buildings of the settlement on the north side of Cooper Island (the only one on the atoll) consist of a common cooking/dining building adjacent to the Atoll's only dock and a kayak and scuba equipment storage building next to the launch ramp.

Palmyra Atoll's location in the Pacific Ocean, where the southern and northern currents meet, means that its beaches are littered with trash and debris. Plastic mooring buoys are particularly plentiful on the beaches of Palmyra, as well as plastic bottles for soft drinks, detergents, etc.

Large parts of the Atoll are closed to any sort of public access due to the threat of uncleared World War II unexploded ordnance.


Population/Elevation sign
Unofficial flag of Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra was first sighted in 1798 by an American sea captain, Edmund Fanning of Stonington, Connecticut, while his ship the Betsy was in transit to Asia, but it was only later—on November 7, 1802—that the first western people landed on the uninhabited atoll. On that date, Captain Sawle of the U.S. ship Palmyra was wrecked on the atoll.

Many believe the atoll's discovery by Fanning to have included a paranormal occurrence, which lends to the island's mysticism. Fanning's ship was under the command of the first mate at night while Fanning slept. Fanning awoke three times in the middle of the night, each time awaking out of bed. The third time, Fanning took it as a premonition and ordered the first mate to heave to. In the morning the ship resumed its travel, but only went a mile before reaching the reef of Palmyra. Had the ship continued its course at night, the entire crew might have perished.

In 1859, Palmyra was claimed by Dr. Gerrit P. Judd of the brig Josephine for the American Guano Company and the United States, in accordance with the Guano Islands Act of 1856; however, the company never started mining for guano, because there was none to be mined. Palmyra is located close to the Intertropical Convergence Zone; there is too much rain for guano to accumulate. In the meanwhile, on February 26, 1862, Kamehameha IV ( 1834–1863), Fourth King of Hawaii (18541863), issued a commission to Captain Zenas Bent and Johnson B. Wilkinson, both Hawaiian citizens, to sail to Palmyra and to take possession of the atoll in the king's name and on April 15, 1862 it was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Captain Bent sold his rights to Palmyra to Mr. Wilkinson on December 24, 1862 and from 1862 to 1885, Kalama Wilkinson owned the island which was divided in 1885 between three heirs, two of which immediately transferred their rights to a certain Wilcox (?) who, in turn, transferred them to the Pacific Navigation Company. The latter entity made an attempt to colonize the atoll by sending a married couple to live there between September 1885 and August 1886.

In 1898 Palmyra was annexed to the U.S. in conjunction with the overall U.S. annexation of Hawaii; on June 14, 1900 it became part of the then U.S. Territory of Hawaii. In the period preceding the formal annexation of the atoll by the U.S., the U.K. had shown interest for the atoll to become part of the "Guano Empire" of John T. Arundel & Co; and in 1889 the British had even formally annexed it. In order to end all further British attempts or contestations, a second, separate act of annexation of Palmyra by the U.S. was made in 1911.

Afterwards, by a series of agreements signed between 1888 and 1911, the Pacific Navigation Company transferred its interests to Henry Ernest Cooper Sr. (18571929). The third heir of Kalama Wilkinson transferred his rights to a Mr. Ringer, whose children in turn also transferred their rights to Henry Ernest Cooper Sr. (s.a.) in 1912 and who then became the sole owner of the atoll.

On February 21, 1912 it was formally claimed by the U.S. government, still as part of Hawaii Territory.

In 1922 Cooper sold the whole atoll except some minor islets (the 5 "home islands") to Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo on August 19 for $15,000.00. The latter party established the Palmyra Copra Company to exploit the coconuts growing on the atoll. Their heirs continued as proprietors afterwards, except for a period of Navy administration during World War II.

In 1934, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra were placed under the Department of the Navy. When the U.S. Navy took over to use the atoll as a naval air station on 15 August 1941, the atoll was owned privately by American citizens, including Hawaiians. It only had permanently resident government representatives, styled Island Commanders, from November 1939 to 1947.

After the war, the Fullard-Leos fought for the return of Palmyra all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won in 1947. When Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, Palmyra, which had been officially part of the City & County of Honolulu, was explicitly separated from the new state as an Incorporated Territory of the U.S., administered by U.S. Department of Interior.

In 1962, the U.S. Department of Defense used the atoll for an instrumentation site during high altitude atomic weapon tests over Johnston Island. There was a utility staff of about ten men who managed the camps and were present during the entire period. But there was an average of about 40 people who were there to run the instrumentation and to service the technical staff. These people represented many of the large universities and laboratories around the world.

Minor problems occurred with the protection of wildlife from servicemen and camp staff. The coconut crabs and "Goonie" birds were about the only animals of any type around the Atoll, thus there was no reported discipline issued to any individual. The main problem was the "Goonie" birds. Feasting in the evening, they could be drenched by the rain and become unable to return to their roosting grounds. Being attracted by the camp lights, they stopped over and usually regurgitated their meal all over the camps. On the other hand, The Hawaiians who were assigned to the staff were great fishermen and frequently caught many fish, lobster and octopus for the enjoyment of the occupants of the Atoll.

In July 1990, Peter Savio of Honolulu took a lease on the atoll until the year 2065 and formed the Palmyra Development Company.

When Savio took over the atoll he appointed Roger Lextrait caretaker of the island, and Roger lived there full time for 8 years.

In December 2000, most of the atoll was purchased by The Nature Conservancy, for the purposes of coral reef conservation and research. The Cooper family still owns two of the five Home Islands.

In November 2005, a worldwide team of scientists joined with The Nature Conservancy to launch a new research station on the Palmyra Atoll in order to study Global warming, disappearing coral reefs, invasive species and other global environmental threats.

Recently, a scientific study was published regarding fossil coral washed up on Palmyra Atoll. The fossil coral was examined for evidence of the behaviour of the El Niño effect on the tropical Pacific over the past 1,000 years.

The Sea Wind murders

In 1974 Palmyra was the site of the notable double murder of Malcolm "Mac" Graham III and Eleanor LaVerne "Muff" Graham, covered extensively in the true crime novel And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi and Bruce B. Henderson. Duane ("Buck") Walker (now known as Wesley G. Walker) was found guilty of Muff's murder and served 22 years, paroled in September of 2007.

South African sailor Sharon Jordan beach combed on the island in 1981, and first found extensive newspaper clippings about the murders, and awoke from a dream certain that she would discover the bodies. Several days later, a human skull and other bones fell out of a World War II vintage metal box that had washed up on the beach after a storm. The bones were determined to be that of murder victim Muff Graham. The most likely scenario was that the victims were first shot or stabbed. The dismembered body that was found had been burned with an acetylene torch and placed in a metal container that had been removed from one of the many scrap military rescue boats and then dumped into the lagoon. Mac Graham's remains have yet to be found, but were likely put in a similar container which may be discovered there one day, according to The Curse of Palmyra Island By Curt Rowlett .

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