Sand, Surf, and Landmines

Photo Maija Hecht

The word “paradise” brings to mind visions of perfection — white sand beaches and palm trees, the kind of surface-level beauty that, at first glance, could fool you into thinking it has evaded the damages of human intervention. Situated just five degrees north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean, Palmyra Atoll is one such place. Made up of around fifty coral-formed islets within a total area of four square miles, Palmyra measures only eight feet above sea level at its highest point.

Last spring, I was aboard a student research vessel with fellow college students to conduct research projects that ranged from phytoplankton studies to plastics and biological surveys. Palmyra was one stop on our journey. As we neared its shore, I joined my classmates and crew at the guardrails to catch my first glimpse of that shallow rise of white sand fringed in the turquoise water. After two weeks at sea sailing over fifteen-foot swells, hearing the sound of birds again was exhilarating. We watched manta-ray wingtips flick out of the water, and black-tipped reef sharks surface and disappear again. As the seas calmed, a small boat led our ship down the narrow channel carved into beds of coral, dead from dredging conducted by the U.S. military during their WWII occupation of the atoll for explosive testing.

Before the military, the atoll saw a handful of private owners. Before those, there was the ill-fated crew of the Esperanza, a pirated ship that wrecked on the island in 1816. Long ago, the atoll was also likely a stop for Polynesian navigators wayfinding by stars. No known human residents have called the area home.

Today Palmyra Atoll is a living laboratory and ecological sanctuary owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. When our ship docked along the central research station, I felt like I was in an episode of “Lost.” Seventeen scientists and volunteers stood waiting, arms crossed over their chests, against the jungle and metal- sided buildings. A long-armed tractor rolled slowly to the bank to unload the barrels of oil we carried from Hawai’i. We exited the ship, and the ground seemed to roll beneath our feet as we readjusted to standing on land.

That first day, we learned that Palmyra is isolated, hot, and a difficult place for humans to live. Native wildlife has had trouble remaining on the atoll due to human intervention.

Palmyra’s scientists are rehabilitating the island to learn how its ecology changes over time, including changes and adaptations in the midst of climate change. Their goal is not to restore it to its pre-WWII state, which could flood the central research station. When the military used Palmyra as a base, mass dredging and the removal of coral in the lagoon drastically changed the shape of the atoll and caused irreparable damage to its ecosystem. The military cut an airstrip through the jungle and buried landmines, some of which remain undetonated.

Photo Maija Hecht

Palmyra’s “Paradise” islet, or the “Paradise Complex,” contains such a high number of uncharted landmines that it is strictly off limits to visitors and scientists. “The birds are better for it,” remarked our ship’s head engineer, since bird populations have flourished without the presence of humans.

Some native bird species have entirely disappeared from the atoll, wiped out by rats introduced to the island by U.S. Navy ships. Palmyra’s research team has developed a creative way to call them home: the bird disco.

We came across the disco while exploring shallow-sunken bunkers from the war on the island’s north side. It was perched on small stilts in the sand, a bit rusty, and emitting a stream of bird calls on a loop. The disco is a collection of weather- proofed, gramophone-like speakers distributed across the atoll and programmed to emit a series of calls from species that have deserted the island. Scientists hope migratory passersby might overhear a familiar call and decide to stop.

Hiking one day, we heard a strange staccato squawking. The unnatural noise brought an eerie quality to the jungle around us, but we laughed when we discovered its source. One of the bird discos had a broken computer and was emitting a gargled, robotic call. Although repairing human damages to an ecosystem requires thoughtful, respectful human assistance, the glitch was a reminder of the fragility of that reconstruction process. The need for repair is everywhere, even in paradise.

Maija Hecht (she/her) is a writer and multimedia artist from Clearwater County, Minnesota.