Clipperton Island: The Only Coral Island in the Eastern Pacific

A stereotype of the Pacific Ocean is the South Pacific coral atoll, decked out in palm trees and filled with crystalline aqua-blue lagoons teeming with exotic marine life. The region of atolls and islands, however, is largely confined to the centre and the west of the ocean. With the exception of Hawaii, the Aleutians and a few other specks of land (e.g., Easter Island; the Galapagos; Pitcairn), vast regions of the north and east Pacific are vast and empty. In the entire east Pacific, there is just one coral atoll, sitting completely alone 965 km off the southern Mexican coast: France’s Clipperton Island.


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Clipperton is a 9 km2 atoll with an island rim 12 km in circumference and between 45 and 400 metres wide (averaging about 150 metres wide). Other than a volcanic rock outcrop at the southeast corner rising 29 metres out of the sand (the remnant of the original volcano around which the atoll formed), the elevation of the island is about 2 metres. The island takes its name from the English privateer John Clipperton, though there is no evidence that he ever actually set foot on the island. In 1711, it was set foot on by French scientists who gave it the name Île de la Passion; one of those discoverers, Michel du Bocage, would later return to inhabit the island for a few months in 1725 for research purposes. France formally claimed the island in 1858.

Unlike the atolls of, say, French Polynesia, Clipperton is mostly scrubland peppered with the occasional coconut palm thanks to warm ocean currents from the mainland which keep the island largely barren (the palms were a human import from the 1890s; it is believed that sometime during the 19th century, a large tropical storm destroyed most of the vegetation on the formerly grassy/woody island and that the large land crab population combined with the later introduction of pigs prevented new vegetation from taking root). Today, spiny grass and low thickets make up most of Clipperton’s flora.And its deep lagoon, being completely closed off from the ocean, is nearly freshwater at the surface. The lagoon is stagnant, devoid of fish, highly eutrophic, nearly half-covered by seaweed, and filled with algal blooms and detritus. As one descends, it becomes increasingly toxic, and at the bottom it is filled super-heated hydrogen sulphide produced by the rotting, dying vegetation in the oxygen-devoid conditions as Jacques Cousteau found in one of his legendary diving expeditions. The atoll, however, is hardly devoid of life, as it is home to thousands of seabirds and literally millions of land crabs. Even a species of lizard in the Enoia genus makes its home on Clipperton. Enoia species are generally found in the South Pacific and Australasia, which demonstrates how far the ancestors of these lizards must have travelled. Life forms on Clipperton represent an amalgam of Indo-Pacific and Mesoamerican species.

Visitors to the island may notice that what vegetation there is grows in parallel rows, alternating between taller/dense and lower/open. That is because the grasses follow the trenches left behind by phosphate (guano) mining during the early 20th centuries. This was the period where palms and other foreign vegetation were introduced to Clipperton. This period was also the only time frame when human settlement was seriously attempted on the atoll, stemming from the passing of the United States’ Guano Islands Act which allowed US citizens to take possession of unclaimed islands rich in guano. Beating the formal French claim by two years (although the French had been involved with Clipperton dating back to 1711, and Mexico had also claimed the island in the 1840s), the American Guano Mining Company took possession of the island in 1856. France responded the next year by declaring the island part of Tahiti. In neither case was much action ever taken.In 1897, France discovered three employees of the guano company working on the island and flying the American flag, but this act by the guano company was not acknowledged by the United States as a claim of sovereignty on its part. In December of that year, Mexico would reenter the battle over the possession of Clipperton, sending a warship to formally annex and occupy the atoll.

With Mexico now in charge of the island, rights to mine the guano deposits were granted to the British Pacific Island Company in 1906.In conjunction with the Mexican government, a mining settlement of was constructed alongside a lighthouse and a military garrison. The settlement was supplemented every two months with a supply ship from Acapulco. The settlement was not just made of workers but also included their wives and children. Things were fine until 1914, by which the time Mexican Revolution had escalated to such a point that the supply ships stopped coming and the 100 residents of the island were left to themselves.The descent into anarchy was swift, brutal and tragic, as residents began dying off due to malnutrition and scurvy. When a US Navy ship passing by in 1915 advocated for the immediate evacuation of the residents, the military governor of the island, Ramón Arnaud, decided to remain. This was a mistake, for by the end of 1915, most of the colony would be dead.Arnaud and three soldiers attempted to escape via canoe in 1916 in pursuit of a passing ship; they failed, and the canoe sank, drowning all four. The colony now had no leader. By 1917, there was one male (the lighthouse keeper, Victoriano Álvarez) and 15 women and children.Declaring himself ‘king’, Álvarez began a sadistic orgy of slavery, rape and murder against the remaining colonists which lasted for some time before the women successfully conspired with one another and Arnaud’s widow finally killed him. Soon after, another passing US Navy ship rescued the survivors: four women and seven children.The settlement on Clipperton Island was abandoned.

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The eleven survivors of the Clipperton Island colony. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2e/SobrevivientesClipperton.jpg.

The issue of ownership was finally resolved in 1931 when Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy ruled in favour of the French. France installed a short-lived military post there, but abandoned it after seven years. Franklin Roosevelt visited the island during World War II to research its potential as a US airbase, but little came from it. Today, Clipperton no longer bears the brunt of human intrusion and is one of the least disturbed ecosystems in the Pacific. 58 feral pigs, the last descendants of the guano operation, were culled in 1958 by a visiting ornithologist in order to protect the native plant, crab and bird populations. There is, however, no legal protection for island in the form of a reserve or park. As you may have seen from the video above, not only do litter and garbage does wash up from the ocean, but there are also numerous abandoned boat anchors surrounding the atoll, and old military refuse can be found around the atoll, such as this old ammunition stockpile left behind by the US Navy. As well, the island is something of a landmark for yachters (who inadvertently add to the debris field). When France’s Algerian nuclear tests became impossible to continue after Algerian independence, Clipperton was a candidate replacement site but was ruled out. Tuna fishermen are also known to ply their craft off the island (some have even been marooned there for short periods of time), and France considering developing the island as a fishing port during the 1980s, but again nothing came from it. Today, an automated weather station relaying data back to civilisation is the only permanent structure.

For a great account of what it’s like to live on Clipperton Island, read this 2003 tale from Lance Milbrand, who spent 41 days on the island for a National Geographic expedition.

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Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/mvey0761.htm.

Further Reading

Milbrand, L. (2003). Clipperton Journal: The Daily Record of Life on a Pacific Atoll. National Geographic News, 29 August 2003. Available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/08/0828_030829_milbrandjournal1.html. Accessed 15 July 2003.

QSL.net (1999). Clipperton Island Pictures and History. 6 October 1999. Available at http://www.qsl.net/clipperton2000/history.html. Accessed 15 July 2011.

Rodriguez, M. (2007). Mysterious Places: Clipperton Island. Latitude Mexico, 14 January 2007. Available at http://www.latitudemexico.com/news/pacific-coast/passion-island.html. Accessed 15 July 2011.

Rogerson, S. (2006). Cousteau and the pit. Dive Magazine, 19 July 2011. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20090415195236/http://www.divemagazine.co.uk/news/article.asp?UAN=2934&v;=5&sp;=332382698484330872538. Accessed 15 July 2011.

Sachs, J. (2008). Clipperton Atoll Expedition – 2008. 2 April 2008. Available at http://faculty.washington.edu/jsachs/lab/www/Research/Clipperton_2008/Clipperton_2008.html. Accessed 15 July 2011.

Trowbridge, L. (2001).Clipperton Island shrub and grasslands (NT0705).WildWorld.Available at http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/nt/nt0705_full.html.Accessed 15 July 2011.

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