Palmyra Isle Land of Wonders

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Palmyra Isle Land of Wonders


Extensive piece covering the return journey and discoveries of Judge Henry Cooper on his initial visit to Palmyra, after purchasing it for $750. He sailed aboard his ship the Luka, with a small crew that included the then curator of the Bishop Museum, J.F. Rock, and returned with hundreds of fish, plant, and animal specimens.



Honolulu Star-Bulletin




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Caption: Party of explorers and scientists who journeyed to Palmyra island in the schooner Luka; from left to right Joseph F. Rock, Judge Cooper, C. Montague Cooke and Capt. George E. Piltz

Tiny Kingdom Found to be Rich in Nature’s Treasure But Buried Loot of Pirate Days is Not Uncovered

Palmyra island is a kingdom of natural wonders, according to its “king,” Judge Henry E. Cooper, whose first visit to his South Seas possessions terminated last night at 9:30 o’clock when the schooner-yacht Luka slipped into Honolulu harbor.

Browned by the sun and the winds, bearded like refugees and clad like dock-wallopers, but happy over the success of their voyage to the famed treasure-island, Judge Cooper, C. Montague Cooke, curator of Bishop Museum, and Territorial Botanist J. F. Rock, members of the Luka party, tumbled ashore last night and for the first time since July 3 slept between the white sheets of a civilized community. Captain Piltz and his crew, more accustomed to doing without the luxuries of razor and spring-mattresses, nevertheless welcomed shore-going with equal acclaim.

Judge Cooper’s treasure-island has proved to be a treasure-land, he said this morning, but whether or not it hold the golden and silver hoard said to be buried by pirates many years ago is still unknown.

Treasures of Nature

The treasure that Judge Cooper and his party found was a treasure of tall cocoa-palms nodding to the breezes - guarantee of riches in copra; the treasure of marvelously-colored fishes swimming in blue and translucent waters; the treasure of a group of islets swept by the fresh, health-giving winds of the ocean and free from pest of any kind.

“Not a mosquito!” says Judge Cooper. “Not a fly! We didn’t see a pest.”

He was asked if their explorations at Palmyra had produced any sign of the traditional buried treasure of the Spanish ship Esperanza.

“We did not hunt for any treasure,” he said with a laugh. “We did not go to hunt and we never even looked for it. We were too busy doing other things.”

This morning the home-returned voyagers got up early and sought the services of the barber. Hair whiskers were trimmed and some of the grime that comes even from ocean sailing was removed.

Judge Cooper Much Pleased

Judge Cooper is frankly and exuberantly happy over what he found on the island he purchased for $750.

“I have not yet caught my breath,” he said today. “I am simply astonished at the wealth of nature that we found. Wait until our photographs are developed and you will see the growth of trees. It is remarkably heavy and the cocoanut palms are very productive. It remains to be seen what can be done with the copra industry.”

Judge Cooper spent much of his time in a rough survey of the island, or rather, of the series of islands in the Palmyra group. It is estimated that there are fifty-two islands in the group, and he says Palmyra covers some four hundred acres.

“When the tide goes down,” he said today, “you can walk on a clean white beach entirely around the island on the inside. We distinguish between the big central lagoon and the deep locas. We found parts of the group as high as eight feet out of the water and it was delightful to live there.”

The party lived in the house put up a long time ago by the Japanese, possibly bird-hunters, who visited the group. With some reconstruction, for which the party was prepared with lumber taken on the schooner, the dwelling was made nicely habitable. The scientists were kept busy during their entire stay of sixteen days in looking at the natural life that abounds in the group.

Natural Aquarium Found

“In the lagoon, looking down over the edge of the ragged coral many feet into the clear water, we could see fishes of the most marvelous coloring,” said the judge today. “They beat anything we have in our aquarium here. There were numberless birds of all kinds on the island. The terns were at the egg-laying season and we tried some of the eggs. Though I was skeptical at first, they proved excellent eating.

“In the Japanese house we found a number of large earthenware jars, possibly brought to collect copra oil. We used them as water-jars. I am told that you can dig to fresh water on the island, but as we had plenty of water with us, we did not attempt to dig.

No Accidents

“No accident of any kind marred out trip. We were in a natural paradise and there was nothing to bother us. The scene on the Opera House curtain - that winding stream between green-clad banks, with pleasant vistas on each side and glades opening out between the trees - is much like the Palmyra scenery - minus that boat load of maidens, of course. There was no such boat load to be seen at Palmyra.

“We came upon the islands about 3:30 one afternoon and it was a beautiful sight. I enjoyed the stay there very much. As to the future, I cannot say. I have made no definite plans as yet - I am too much astonished with what I saw.

“We collected a number of specimens of various kinds besides taking many photographs, and I expect that we will make up an exhibit and put it in some public place. It will be of considerable interest.”

Abundant Rainfall

Judge Cooper took occasion to make many interesting observations of rainfall and temperature.

During the sixteen days the party spent on the island, four inches of rain was recorded by the instruments. The greater portion of this fall occurred at night. An almost daily rain squall sweeps over the group but is not accompanied by any severe gales as is the general rule throughout the tropics. The regular rainfall served to keep the visitors well supplied with drinking water, which was gathered and stored in barrels. With well watered soil, cocoanut trees are said to thrive to a high state of perfection. Judge Cooper planted a plot with a variety of vegetables immediately following his arrival. The plants and vines appeared to force themselves right out of the ground. “I never saw anything like it,” he commented this morning in relating his initial experience as a small farmer on Palmyra.

Heat Not Excessive

While Honolulu sweltered in the throes of a heat wave during the latter part of July, the party of explorers at Palmyra were favored with cooling breezes and a temperature that was exceedingly pleasing.

“The lowest thermometer reading that we noted during our stay at the islands was 78 degrees, while the highest registered at ninety degrees. The maximum temperature prevailed for but two days. The abundance of shade from thousands of cocoanut and other large trees makes life down there exceedingly delightful,” said Judge Cooper.

Judge Cooper also spent much time in running lines and making a survey of the fifty or more islands in the group. He brought back data which when worked out will give a pretty accurate idea of the extent of the area available for cultivation. The party made a personal inspection of the fifty islands. There are two other smaller dots which at low tide assume the proportion of islands of considerable magnitude.

Found Trace of Japanese

Japanese are believed to have spent some time on Palmyra islands within the past two or three years, judging from the ruins of a small hut and the presence of a number of broken cooking utensils and large oil jars which the explorers ran across in following their investigation on one of the larger islands. Near the hut also was discovered a large pit into which had been dumped the remains of many island birds. This pile had been practically reduced to decomposed bones and lime. Some of the jars were intact and are believed to have contained oil and also may have been used to store water.

Weatherbeaten and rendered absolutely useless, two small boats were found, where they have been drawn up on the shore and partly concealed in the dense jungle that in some places reaches to the water’s edge. That the Japanese were finally removed from the island by means of a larger vessel is the belief of the party. Washington Island, which lies some two hundred miles to the southward, is know to be populated by between forty and fifty Japanese laborers, employed by the owners of the copra plantation.

They could easily have crossed the intervening distance in good weather, carried on poaching operations and patiently awaited the arrival of one of the larger Japanese schooners operated in the Pacific islands by the large bird feather companies which have headquarters at Tokyo and other large Japanese cities.

Copra is King at Palmyra

At the least calculation there are twenty thousand bearing cocoanut trees on the several islands in the group, according to the members of the party. All are in a thriving state and the product simply drops to the ground where it finally rots and disappears. What augurs well for the cultivating of cocoanuts is the fact that no rats, parasites or leaf worms were found. Judge Cooper, as well as the scientists who accompanied him on the expedition, made careful inquiry into this phase of the situation.

It is believed that many tons of Copra could be harvested from Palmyra within a very short space of time, following the careful inspection of all the islands made by the party.

Millions of Birds

“We met with millions of birds,” declared Professor J.F. Rock, who as a member of the party returned with cases filled with specimens, and also a collection of a hundred and fifty large photographs taken throughout the group.

The Bird life in the Palmyras is said to much resemble the varieties found throughout the Hawaiian bird reservation to the westward of Honolulu and occasioned visited by the U.S. revenue cutter Thetis. One peculiarity noted was that the birds find nests on the coral and solid rock. Available stretches of sandy beach are not plentiful. Every variety of bird know to the south seas is to be found.

The possibilities for guano are not bright. Judge Cooper paid considerable attention to this feature, but stated this morning that little or no guano was found on the islands visited. No animals or rodents of any description were discovered, though a search of many days was prosecuted with this object in view. The same result followed in seeking snakes or other reptiles.

Luka a Fina Sea Craft

The Luka is a fine craft, and exceedingly well adapted for the purpose of south sea exploration and research, according to the opinion of Captain Plitz, the veteran navigator who commanded the vessel. The schooner behaves well in all kinds of weather. The auxiliary engines served their purpose during the many days that the vessel passed through the doldrums. Good weather favored the voyagers on the entire trip.

Trip a Pleasant One

The vessel, which is well know to kamaainas, and for years a prominent figure on the local waterfront, has ample accommodation for quite a number of passengers.

The vessel sailed from Honolulu on July 3rd and arrived at Palmyra on the morning of July 12. The return voyage took sixteen days to complete, owing to an almost total absence of wind for a greater portion of the way. The Luka picked up the island of Kauai Wednesday, and then came in to a little wind, which assisted the vessel in gaining port shortly after nine o’clock last night.

Ten tons of ice, packed in the large refrigerator, were available until the day of sailing from Palmyra. The ships stores were more than sufficient for the requirements of the party and the crew of the vessel.

Captain Piltz brought the Luka to an anchorage of some six miles off the islands, and the explorers as well as their effects and supplies were brought to land by means of the several ships boats.

No Treasure

“We went to the islands on business, and not a fool’s errand,” was the comment made when a member of the party was asked if it had attempted to unearth the fabled buried treasure, believed to have been left there many years ago by one of the famous piratical gangs. Judge Cooper also stated that no attempt was made to find any supposedly hidden wealth.

A substantial house has been erected on one of the islands, and a supply of provisions left there. The crates of chickens carried in the Luka were returned, the possibility of the fowls securing food appearing remote. The waters adjacent to the islands are said to be infested with ravenous sharks. The Cooper party did not go to Fanning island, though arrangements were perfected to visit the cable station, had occasions required. Some of the largest trees measured a hundred or more feet in height. The average height of the islands at low tide is estimated at from six to eight feet. The party found the best of fishing, and of a variety similar to those found in Hawaiian waters.

Material for Museum

C. Montague Cooke, curator of the Bishop Museum said this morning that probably the best collections to be made on the islands were those of coral and crabs, there being a wide variety of the latter, weighing all the way from 15 pounds down to a few ounces. A large number of different species of native birds infest the islands and are widely distributed, principal among these being boobies and terns.

“The chief characteristic of the islands are the jungles of birds nest ferns of which we brought back several specimens,” he said. “It was impossible for us to ascertain the number of islands in the group, but I believe at low tide there may be as many as 52. In all, we brought back 12 species of plant life. As to the trip, it was by far the best I have ever taken. The sailing both ways was of the best, the sea being so calm that we hardly ever shipped water. During a squall which struck us shortly before we reached the islands, the Luka flew along at the rate of 11 knots per hour. We slept on deck the greater part of the time while we were at sea. It rained considerable during our stay on the island, the precipitation being 4.26 inches in ten days.

“there were sharks galore all around the islands and we found this out especially when we were wading from one island to another. One of them started taking a nip at me, and I got out of the vicinity in lively fashion. It was a bully trip all right; someone suggested to me this morning that we get a big sail boat and make another. However, the Luka suits me all right."


“Palmyra Isle Land of Wonders,” Palmyra Archive, accessed May 27, 2020,