What is Palmyra Atoll?

Michael Anissimov

Palmyra Atoll is a small uninhabited atoll located near the geographic center of the Pacific Ocean. With a total land area of 4.6 square miles (12 square km), Palmyra Atoll is composed of 16 medium-sized connected islands and 36 additional small islets and sand bars. The average annual rainfall on the atoll is 175 inches per year, covering the island in lush foliage. The only structures on the island were built during World War II, and include an overgrown and unusable airstrip and several other decaying buildings.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

Palmyra Atoll is located about 100 miles north of the equator and is the northernmost of the Line Islands, which also includes Millennium Island, the first land outside of Antarctica to see the rising Sun each day. The International Date Line is located immediately to the east of the Line Islands. Palmyra Atoll was first sighted in 1789 by American sea captain Edmund Fanning while on the way to Asia. It was not landed upon until three years later, when on 7 November 1802 the USS Palmyra was wrecked on the reef around the atoll.

The paranormal circumstance of Palmyra Atoll's discovery have gave rise to a series of legends and mystique surrounding the islands that persist to this day. While Captain Fanning was sleeping at night on his journey through the Pacific, he gave command of the ship to his first mate. The night prior to sighting the island, Fanning woke up abrupt three times. On the third awakening, he considered it a premonition and ordered the ship to be anchored until the morning. In the morning, the ship resumed its travel, but went only a mile before reaching the reef of Palmyra. If they had run into the reef during the night, the entire crew might have perished.

In 1862, the atoll was annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii in the name of King Kamehameha IV. After a failed attempt to colonize the island by sending a married couple to live there in 1885, the island was annexed to the United States in 1900 as part of its annexation of the State of Hawaii. After shifting ownerships, the majority of the atoll was formally claimed by the US Government in 1912. The Palmyra Copra Company bought partial rights to collect coconuts there, but during World War II the island was under Navy administration. The island became one of numerous Pacific bases the US used to stage attacks on other islands occupied by Japan.

In 1974, the islands were the site of the double murder of Mac and Muff Graham by a couple they had met in the area. Seven years later, Muff Graham's body washed up on the shores of Palmyra Atoll. It is thought that they were murdered for their expensive yacht. The perpetrators of the crime were sentenced to 22 years in prison.

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