Living in Paradise on the Palmyra Atoll

The galley i i

hide captionThe galley where the staff and scientists at the research center take their meals and socialize.

Steve Proffitt, NPR
The galley

The galley where the staff and scientists at the research center take their meals and socialize.

Steve Proffitt, NPR
The yacht club i i

hide captionAt the rustic yacht club, there is a TV with a DVD, a weight room and a bar.

Steve Proffitt, NPR
The yacht club

At the rustic yacht club, there is a TV with a DVD, a weight room and a bar.

Steve Proffitt, NPR

Palmyra Atoll, a lagoon surrounded by coral reefs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is about 1,000 miles from the closest inhabited land — Hawaii.

This remoteness makes it a truly remarkable place, allowing for scientific research that would not be possible in other places with human populations.

Palmyra is uninhabited for the most part — it has no indigenous population, with only a small staff to support the 15 or 20 researchers who come for a week or a month at a time.

A non-profit group, the Nature Conservancy, bought Palmyra seven years ago. Together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it manages the atoll as a site for science and conservation.

Stanford University scientist Rob Dunbar has spent time working on the island.

"This is one of the few places on the planet where you can study a true climate change signal and see what it does to corral reefs," Dunbar says.

Distance bestows a kind of grace. The effects of civilization spread out from the world's great land masses, but Palmyra is about the last place they reach.

Scientists Housed in Rustic Accommodations

People used to stay in tents in Palmyra. But a couple of years ago, the Nature Conservancy built more than a dozen sleeping cabins with small front porches. The cabins have windows of made of corrugated plastic that can be propped open with sticks, and screens to keep out the insects.

There is power in every cabin, lights and a fan overhead. All this is connected to a generator nearby.

There's a laundry, showers, flush toilets and a septic system. A galley with a cook keeps everyone nicely fed and there's a full scientific lab, which is the only building on the island with air conditioning.

Tommy Adkins lives on Palmyra and he's the person who keeps things running smoothly on the island.

"On a good day, it's just making sure everything's working and running correctly. On a bad day, three or four things have hiccups and need repair, and usually they need repair all at once," Adkins says.

Adkins also is the man to turn to when for fresh fish. He takes a boat out to look for tuna. They're outside the lagoon — and weigh some 60, 70, or even 80 pounds.

To Visit Palmyra, Get in Line

There are only a few ways one can experience Palmyra.

The Nature Conservancy keeps a list of would-be volunteers to work on the atoll and hires some skilled people, like Adkins.

Very lucky students also, at times, make visits. Some who make it onto the island get a berth on the "Robert Seamans," a schooner, owned by the Sea Education Association and chartered by Stanford University for a marine studies seminar.

Recently, about 30 students, along with a half dozen professors, sailed into Palmyra to study the reefs, the marine life and the birds.

But for those who don't have the time to go back to school, there's another way.

The Nature Conservancy depends on the generosity of donors. To the most generous, it offers rewards beyond tote bags. An official declined comment on the necessary donation amount to be eligible for a trip. But those who make it double bunk in a small, sweep-it-yourself cabin. The shared bath is about 200 feet away.

And a tip — a final field note — for those who do get to the island: Before you go to bed, shake out the sheets. Often, brown spiders the size of silver dollars live in the folds of the bed spreads.

Radio piece produced by Steve Proffitt.

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