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To find evidence of a healthy Earth, one might come to Palmyra Atoll. Located near the center of the Pacific Ocean - 1000 miles south of Hawaii and 400 miles north of the equator - Palmyra rests in the intertropical convergence zone. This is where the world's ocean and atmospheric currents meet and dance. The ocean's North Equatorial Current sweeps from the east and sometimes the South Equatorial Current shifts north to join that sweep; the equatorial Countercurrent spews from the west, usually between the other two. These whirling and swirling patterns converge and separate and meld with each other and with local tidal and wind-driven currents. This is a surging, changing sea of diversity and fertility.

Atmospheric currents perform a similar dance, surging with storms and winds best suited to native species. Trade winds collide and sweep up until they drop torrential rains.

This is where few humans come, where few want to stay, and why Palmyra provides an isolated hint of what "wilderness" means.

Palmyra consists, in part, of about 688 acres of emergent land, which, at only six to seven feet above sea level, is soaked under 175 inches of rain a year. Here, mature native Pisonia - a balsa-like tree up to a hundred feet tall - stand in tangled masses ideal for seabirds to raise their young by the tens of thousands.

This small atoll is the only breeding site in 450,000 square miles of ocean, and it is home to the world's second-largest colony of red-footed boobies. Twenty-eight other bird species ride wind and sea to this island, including the bristle-thighed curlew, a migratory species of concern (not yet endangered).

Many birds in this interconvergence zone follow patterns known only to themselves. "How long is their nesting season? What are their migratory patterns? We simply don't know," says Rob Schallenberger of US Fish and Wildlife's Honolulu Office. This is one of the many discoveries yet to be made at Palmyra.

Prowling beneath the birds' domain, coconut crabs - some the size of garbage can lids - prowl in relative safety, although, as a delicacy, they have been almost wiped out on most other islands. In the sandy lagoons, green turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, again in relative safety. The most serious threat comes from rats, who traditionally hitch rides to such islands aboard ships or yachts then disembark and begin raiding nests for eggs and young. An elaborate rat eradication program will be part of the Palmyra project.

In the sea itself, scientists are caught in nets of discovery. Every day scientists find more coral species. For the known species, scientists are discovering new facts, some of which are directly related to the health of oceans in ways that the rainforests are related to the overall health of the planet.

At low tide, Palmyra exposes the upper story of this rainforest of the sea: both living soft and hard corals form the reef, in shapes and colors that defy imagination. According to Jim Maragos of US Fish and Wildlife, Palmyra tidal pools to the east are particularly rich because of the constant bathing of surging currents pushed up on the reefs by wind-driven waves. This extensive food web never ceases to amaze scientists by its complexity and diversity, ranging from plankton to whales, turtles to sharks, and rays to pearl oysters.

While still wild, Palmyra is not pristine. World War II occupation necessitated dredging channels and building of landing strips. The rat invasion might account for the absence of burrowing birds found on many other Pacific islands. But today Palmyra lies on the edge of pristine, and keeping it that way is the goal of The Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife. The reasons are many:

  • This may well be the only place scientists can learn about coral reef development in a wet atoll without human interference. The site - only beginning to suffer from human-based impact -- also provides the opportunity to study ongoing effects from human activity.
  • The intertropical location and wilderness condition of Palmyra create a safe harbor for the larvae of reef critters to settle out of the water current "highways"; thus the site has become a warehouse of fertile life contributing to Pacific biological diversity.
  • Palmyra, as a relatively-pristine "rainforest of the sea" can provide answers about maintaining a healthy ocean environment. As rainforests help promote a healthy atmosphere, so coral reef ecosystems help maintain a clean ocean and restock depleted species.
Palmyra exists in its current state because of the stubborn determination of the Fullard-Leo family who bought the island in 1922; the three brothers fought to keep the island after WWII, protected it from development, and finally consented to its sale to The Nature Conservancy in May 2000. This Pacific Paradise is a dream kept alive and shared, and you can be a part of the discovery. Dive with our One World Journeys team into the mysteries of Palmyra.

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