Palmyra Atoll Digital Archive
An independent archive dedicated to the preservation and sharing of Palmyra’s history.
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Common questions about Palmyra
Palmyra sits approximately 1,000 miles South of Hawaii. Traveling by plane from Honolulu (the most common method) takes about 2.5 hours in good weather. If you’re more adventurous, you could sail from Honolulu harbor in about 8 days if the wind holds, or 3 days if you run the motor.
On November 10th, 1802, Captain Cornelius Sowle of Rhode Island, became the first westerner to set foot on Palmyra. During a return trip from China, he made landfall on what was then an uncharted atoll, and named it for his ship, the Palmyra (read his original announcement here).
Portrait of Captain Sowle circa 1805, painted in China
British explorer Edmund Fanning, in his 1833 memoirs “Voyages in the South Pacific,” claims to have discovered Palmyra in 1798, after a night of perilous visions. However, beyond this likely exaggerated story, no evidence exists to support his claim.
In 1999, the Nature Conservancy purchased Palmyra from its private owners, the Fullard-Leo Family, who had owned Palmyra since 1920. The family had other buyers interested, who were offering substantially more money (including billionaire Bill Gates), but they turned these down, choosing to ensure Palmyra’s natural legacy would be given first priority.
Today, the 25 islets and their lagoons are jointly owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service. The one exception being Home Island (sometimes called “Broken Home” because natural erosion has split it down the middle), which still belongs to descendants of Henry Cooper, who owned Palmyra prior to the Fullard-Leo’s.
A small team of rotating staff and researchers occupy Palmyra year round, each working in shifts lasting no longer than 3 months. They live in a small village near the runway on Cooper Island. The atoll will occasionally hosts additional visitors of 5-10 people.
The other 24 islets are uninhabited, and devoted to preserving Palmyra’s native flora and fauna.
Not even a little bit! Despite several poorly researched and largely fictional works describing a “curse” of Palmyra, the reality is, it’s one of the safest places to wash up in the Pacific. Of the recorded shipwrecks and downed craft who have reached the atoll since its discovery in 1798, the survival rate is 100%.
Nearly all the accounts I’ve read describing the atoll, dating all the way back to its discovery in 1804, speak about its beauty, rich wildlife, and welcoming atmosphere. After the tragic events of 1974, several parties (including a certain lawyer at the center of those events), painted a picture of Palmyra that simply doesn’t exist.
The only “curse” Palmyra may have, is for anyone who tries to profit from its resources. To date, despite dozens of attempts over the last 200 years, none of the entrepreneurial enterprises attempted, have ever netted a profit.
To protect Palmyra and its future, visitors must contact the US Fish and Wildlife Service or the Nature Conservancy, to arrange a visit.
What is Palmyra like Today?
In January of 2019, I had the chance to spend a week on Palmyra. This video showcases some of the highlights from my time on the atoll, including exploring the remnants of World War 2 structures left by the Navy, and interacting with the wide variety of wildlife thriving there.
Special thanks to the Nature Conservancy and their staff for the ongoing support of preserving Palmyra’s history, and for making the trip possible!