Palmyra Atoll - Landsat Image N-03-05
Palmyra Atoll - NOAA Nautical Chart (1:47,500)
Orthographic projection over Palmyra Atoll
( ) is an incorporated atoll
administered by the United States federal
. The atoll is , and it is
located in the Northern Pacific Ocean. Geographically, Palmyra is one of the
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 of coastline has one anchorage known as
. It consists of an extensive reef
, two shallow lagoons
some 50 sand and reef-rock islets and bars covered with
, and tall Pisonia
The islets of the atoll are all connected, except Sand
in the west and Barren Island
the east. The largest island is Cooper Island
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, Tanager Island, Marine Island, Kaula Island, Paradise
Island, and Home Island (clockwise). Average annual rainfall is
approximately per year. Daytime temperatures average 85°F (29°C)
an incorporated territory of
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
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 ).
Palmyra's North Beach
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
territory. Cooper Island is privately owned by The Nature Conservancy
and managed as
a nature reserve; the rest of the atoll is government land in the
possession of the United States Fish and
. Since the territory has no local government,
it is administered directly from Washington, D.C., by the Office
of Insular Affairs, United States
Department of the Interior. Defense is the responsibility of the United States.
For statistical purposes, Palmyra is grouped as one of the United States Minor
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
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 (totaling 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
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 United States ship Palmyra was wrecked on the
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
however, the company never started mining for guano
, because there was none to be mined.
on February 26, 1862, Kamehameha IV
(1834–1863), Fourth King of Hawaii (1854–1863),
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
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
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
Kingdom had shown interest for the atoll to become part of
the “Guano Empire” of John T.
& 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.
(1857–1929). 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
five “home islands”) to Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo, parents of
actor Leslie Vincent
, on August 19,
1922, for $
latter party established the Palmyra Copra Company to exploit the
growing on the atoll. Their heirs
continued as proprietors afterwards, except for a period of
World War II
Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra were placed under the
Department of the
When the U.S. Navy took over the atoll for use as
the Palmyra Island Naval Air Station
on 15 August
1941, the atoll was privately owned by American citizens in Hawaii.
From November 1939 to 1947, the atoll had only permanently resident
government representatives, styled “island commanders.”
war, the Fullard-Leo family 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 was explicitly separated from the new
state as an incorporated
of the U.S., administered by the U.S. Department of
the 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.
In July 1990, Peter Savio
took a lease on the atoll until the year 2065 and formed the
. When Savio took over the atoll he appointed Roger
Lextrait caretaker of the island, and Lextrait lived there for 8
In December 2000, most of the atoll was purchased by The Nature Conservancy
, for the
purposes of coral
. The Cooper family still owns two of the
five Home Islands. In 2003, a scientific study was published
regarding fossil coral washed up on Palmyra Atoll. The fossil coral
was examined for evidence of the behavior of the El Niño
effect on the tropical Pacific over the
past 1,000 years. In November 2005, a worldwide team of scientists
joined with The Nature
to launch a new research station on the Palmyra
Atoll in order to study global
, disappearing coral reefs
and other global
The Pacific Remote
Islands Marine National Monument
was established on January 6,
2009 and includes the Palmyra Atoll. The Secretary of the
has management responsibility, delegated to the Fish
and Wildlife Service.
Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and related legal
On January 18, 2001, the Secretary of the Interior signed an order
designating Palmyra’s tidal lands, submerged lands, and surrounding
waters out to 12 nautical miles from the water’s edge as a National
Wildlife Refuge. Subsequently, the Department of the Interior
published a regulation providing for the management of the refuge.
66 Fed. Reg. 7660-01 (Jan. 24, 2001). The regulation states, in
pertinent part, as follows:
"We will close the refuge to commercial fishing but will permit a
low level of compatible recreational fishing for bonefishing and
deep water sportfishing under programs that we will carefully
manage to ensure compatibility with refuge purposes. . . .
Management actions will include protection of the refuge waters and
wildlife from commercial fishing activities."
In March 2003, The Nature Conservancy conveyed 416 acres of the
emergent land of Palmyra to the United States to be included in the
refuge. It subsequently added 28 more acres to the
In January 2007, several parties sued the United States in the
Court of Federal Claims
alleging that, under the Takings Clause
, the Interior
Department regulation had “directly confiscated, taken, and
rendered wholly and completely worthless” their purported property
interests. The United States filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit,
and the court granted the motion. See Palmyra Pac. Seafoods, L.L.C.
v. United States, 80 Fed. Cl. 228 (2008). On April 9, 2009, the
court's decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for
the Federal Circuit
As of July 2009, limited visits to the refuge are allowed for
certain circumstances, including by private recreational sailboat
or motorboat. Such visits must have prior approval, with access to
Cooper Island arranged through The Nature Conservancy.
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
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
- Title 48 Chapter 3. US Code Collection. Cornell
Law School. URL retrieved February 10, 2007.
- K. M. Cobb et al., El Niño/Southern Oscillation and Tropic
Pacific Climate During the Last Millennium, Nature, Vol.
424, 17 July 2003
- Rowlett, Curt (2006). Labyrinth13: True Tales of the
Occult, Crime & Conspiracy, Chapter 6, The Curse of
Palmyra Island. Lulu Press. ISBN 1-4116-6083-8.