An enchanted realm deserted by man, Nature reigns on Palmyra's beaches

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An enchanted realm deserted by man, Nature reigns on Palmyra's beaches


Third of a four part series on the state of Palmyra in 1979, when attention was drawn to it as a potential storage site for nuclear waste. Part three describes the plant and animal life of the atoll, as the author walks through its forest and along the beaches.


Bob Krauss


Hawaii State Library


The Honolulu Advertiser




© The Honolulu Advertiser, used here by permission



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Palmyra: An enchanted realm deserted by man, Nature reigns on Palmyra's beaches (Part 3 of 4)
Photo Caption: A baby booby bird.
Palmyra Atoll has been in the news since being named as a possi-ble site for storage of nuclear wastes. So little is known about the remote island that The Advertiser sent columnist Bob Krauss on a chartered flight to Palmyra. Here is his report.
PALMYRA ATOLL — This speck of land in the Pacific Ocean is a dramatic example of what happens to an island when it has been invaded, exploited, rearranged and then deserted by human beings. I expected Palmyra Atoll to be an empty ruin. After all, the Navy had changed the place as completely as tourism has changed Waikiki Beach. Giant dredges during World War II turned the atoll of 52 tiny islands into 35. Three natural lagoons became two. Then 6,000 troops sailed through a channel blasted in the reef. They built a wharf, air strip, barracks, motor pool. They threw causeways to be used as jeep roads across the lagoons. Then they pulled out, leaving Palmyra to the fish and the birds and the crabs. It was as if a great disaster had left Waikiki empty of human beings. What would be the result? At Palmyra, the result was an explosion of animal energy that astounds me. Compared to the white sands of this atoll, Waikiki Beach is an uninhabited desert. I was hiking along a beach where the only footprints were my own. There I was, 900 miles from anywhere, all alone on a strip of sand between the ocean and a towering wall of beach heliotrope. And the sand began to move. I thought I must be hallucinating No, there was slow movement all round me on the beach. My eyes focused and I realized I had walked into a field of snails about as big around as the end of my thumb. Hundreds of snails were feeding on broken coral. Their slow movements made the whole beach seem alive. As I walked along the shore, I kept hearing explosions in the shallow water. I would look, startled, in the direction of the explosion and see only ripples. Then came a sound like rain beating hard on a corrugated iron roof. But the sun was shining. An area of the lagoon as large as the roof of my house had become agitated. I saw an enormous school of small fish in turmoil, some leaping clear of the water, as a larger one came hunting. That's where the noise came from. The single explosions turned out to be fish, also. They were milky white with pastel-pink fins. When I came too close, they darted away with a snap of the tail that exploded in the water. I happened to look into the sky and realized I was under observation. A stately frigate bird leaned into the trade wind overhead, its backswept wings as long as my arms. Suddenly there was a soft, slithering sound over my head in the overgrown heliotrope. A big boobie with a white breast sailed out of the tree and past my nose. Then its mate swooped past. only a few feet away, and out over the lagoon. I heard a harsh gargling sound from up in the tree. It came from the very top. There against the sky was the saddest, funniest face on the limberest rubber neck I have ever seen. A baby boobie sat in the top branches of the heliotrope, gazing down with the pathos of a circus clown. As I continued my stroll, the only obstructions along my walk were concrete bunkers washed by storms from their anchorages on shore to straddle the beach. To get around, I circled into the jungle of slender coconut palms. Here the ground was knee-high in fern, fallen palm fronds, and old coconuts. The rattling startled me at first. Then I realized that I had frightened the land crabs which hid there. But I was not prepared for the army of hermit crabs which marched up the beach as I emerged on the other side of the bunkers. If you are lucky enough to see a hermit crab on Waikiki Beach, he's a timid fellow in a miniature shell not much bigger than a raindrop. These hermit crabs wore shells as big as my fist. Their muscular legs were 4 inches long and flaming red. That walk was my introduction to the life that emerges on an island when human beings go away. Or the life that existed on Pacific islands before human beings intruded. My walk was just the beginning. I went along one morning when Black Jack Burakitio went out to demonstrate how he catches a fish dinner. One cast of his throw-net brought in 15 mullet. However, Joe apologized because they were small. He threw them back. Palmyra owner Ainsley Fullard-Leo took us on an excursion of the lagoon by boat. A half-dozen manta rays, as big as table tops, came by to inspect us. We waded in shallow water as clear as Liquid air for a while and walked up to within 10 feet of four parrot fish, 3 feet long, feeding on the bottom. All the fish were so tame that, if I had brought along a slice of bread, I think I could have fed some from my hand. The most exciting event of the day was a cruise along a shore where birds nested in the naupaka and heliotrope. As our outboard motor frightened parent birds, the sky overhead became a vast aerial extravaganza. Big birds took off across our bow like powerful flying boats. Boobies, curlews, terns, and many species I can't name soared and wheeled overhead. They skimmed the water on one wingtip with artistic grace. We were drowned in their excited mewing, a bleating like that of a million goats. From their nests, the fluffy, sad-faced babies watched us in mournful accusation while majestic frigates soared above it all in regal proprietorship. TOMORROW: The mysteries of Palmyra.

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Newspaper Article


Bob Krauss, “An enchanted realm deserted by man, Nature reigns on Palmyra's beaches,” Palmyra Archive, accessed May 25, 2020,