Courtesy of John McCallen
Fairy terns, like this one, seem extraordinarily curious. They flutter about, just inches above people's heads.
Fairy terns, like this one, seem extraordinarily curious. They flutter about, just inches above people's heads. Courtesy of John McCallen
You can read more about our trip and hear the radio pieces we produced online. Here's more on the series.
Courtesy of Tommy Adkins
A turtle swims in the waters surrounding the atoll.
A turtle swims in the waters surrounding the atoll. Courtesy of Tommy Adkins
"Hey, remember how I told you I was gonna take you on the perfect tropical vacation?"
Alex, my traveling partner and host of NPR's Day to Day, asked me this question as we stood soaked in the rain, in the dark. I was holding about $5,000 of recording equipment, and desperately trying to keep it dry. But there was an upside. We were on a tiny, magic string of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – Palmyra Atoll.
To get there, we took a commercial jet to Honolulu, then a small, twin-engine charter flight of about 4 ½ hours. Palmyra is southwest of Hawaii. It's a distance of about 1,000 miles across nothing but ocean.
We were flying with a group of about a dozen scientists – bird people, shark researchers, tuna experts – these were the field variety of scientists, and they were all joking and frisky and happy to be headed for their element.
We sailed over an almost cloudless sky as we made our way to Palmyra. We were to land on a small airstrip constructed during World War II by Seabees from the 76th U.S. Naval Construction Battalion. A radio crew was stationed on the atoll during that war, and the Seabees also dredged a channel in the lagoon so that Navy ships could harbor there.
But other than those sailors and a caretaker or two, Palmyra has never been inhabited. That fact – no indigenous human population – in itself makes it a wonderful laboratory for scientists. But it's also isolated from any land mass, and it's located at the confluence of the north and south trade winds. Plus, since 2000, the atoll has been protected by the private foundation, The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As we approached Palmyra, the cloudless sky turned ominous. We flew into a dark, bumpy rainstorm. I remembered Alex, who'd actually been here once before, telling me, "You know, Steve, when you get within a few hundred miles of the island, you're at the point of no return. There's nowhere else to go, so you've just got to land."
The co-pilot came out and told us we would make a pass over the island, then turn and try to land. Through the fog we could just make out patches of green below. Someone mentioned that the co-pilot had revealed that she and the pilot were engaged to be married. They figured that was a good omen. All I could think was the two of them holding hands, and one saying to the other, "Well, at least we're going down together."
But, we lived to write about it. The plane landed safely, smoothly even, in the blinding rain. We stepped out of the plane, and onto Palmyra.
The Nature Conservancy has created a research camp on the atoll. There are 10 or so staff members – including three very accomplished cooks – who can support about a dozen visiting scientists.
There are wooden sleeping cabins — spare, but comfortable. There's a dock with several small boats and a larger one for going beyond the reefs. There's a galley, which is sort of the community center as well. And there's a laboratory – a dry lab as the researchers call it.
And dry is important. It rains an average of 175 inches a year on Palmyra, and the lab is the only de-humidified and air-conditioned building on the atoll. It's a place where scientists (and radio journalists) can dry their equipment. And as a bonus, there's wireless Internet access to the outside world.
During our week on Palmyra, we literally went from one adventure to another. One day, we caught sharks with scientists who were studying these "apex predators" that live in abundance in the protected waters around the lagoon. Another day, while exploring one of the many small islands that ring the lagoon, we were suddenly surrounded by ethereal, white birds known as Fairy Terns. Totally unafraid and very curious, they fluttered just about our heads.
We trudged through the mud one rainy night with some bird researchers who were putting tiny GPS recorders on a seabird called the Red-Footed Booby. And we spent a day with students from Stanford, who had sailed into the lagoon on a 140-foot square-rigger. In the evenings, we often hung out at the dock, where a pair of huge Manta Ray, drawn by the lights, would circle in the shallow water. And we learned to shake out our bed sheets after Alex found two silver-dollar-sized brown spiders in the folds of his spread.
Then there was the snorkeling. It's impossible to describe the beauty of the corral forests, and the sheer abundance of marine life. The reef is has such a vibrant "biomass" as the scientists would put it, that the sharks — and there are many — don't seem to really notice divers. Although the first time I encountered a Gray Reef Shark larger than I am, let me assure you, it had my full attention.
We also recorded about 20 hours of audio, shot maybe 1,000 pictures and, with the help of our friend Mark Shwartz of Stanford, brought back some amazing video. We made some friends — people like Tommy Adkins, the camp's chief engineer, who is also a great fisherman and an excellent photographer. And Edith Nonner, a self-styled "bio-bum" who is studying plant ecology on the atoll for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The phrase "the trip of a lifetime" is a bit of a cliché, but it's an apt way to describe a visit to Palmyra. It really is as close to paradise as any place one could hope to find. We spent our last hour on the atoll at the "swimming hole," a little sheltered cove, floating on our backs and feeling the warm, gentle Pacific rain licking at our faces.
Steve Proffitt is a senior producer at NPR's Day to Day.