Palmerston is a small atoll in the Cook
Islands, South Pacific. Distinguished by its pristine
reef system, lack of airstrip, and extreme isolation, the
atoll hosts nesting green sea turtles
in the spring and summer and humpback
whales in the winter.
Atoll lies at 18° 04' S, 163° 10' W on the western
margin of the Cook Islands group, over 250 miles west of Aitutaki,
the closest other island. The atoll consists of six motus
totaling less than 3 sq. km spread around a reef 23nm in circumference.
The atoll was first settled in 1863 by the legendary William
Marsters, who within 15 years, along with his three wives,
brought the population to its current level of about 40 people.
Over the years the human population has fluctuated as high
as 160 and as low as 30 individuals, and consists only of
Marsters by birth or marriage. The entire population lives
on one of the motus, Home Island.
of the basic needs of the Marsters are not being met. Electricity
is available 12 hours a day, if and when the diesel generator
is working. The nearest medical care is in Rarotonga which
lies 300 miles upwind, a passage of which no Palmerston boats
are capable. A single sideband radio is the islanders' only
contact with the rest of the Cook Islands and the world beyond.
The island school has been open less than half of the past
decade, but fortunately was reopened in January, 2001.
and fish are the traditional staples of the islanders. Palmerston's
fishermen feed their families by braving currents and sharks
to spear parrotfish and other reef species. Some fish are
caught by trolling outside the reef, and still more are caught
for export by hand-set nets. Sea birds such as boobies, red-tailed
tropic birds, and frigates, as well as turtles, are harvested
on a seasonal basis. Few vegetables and fruits are grown on
the atoll due to unsuitable soil. The islanders' diet is now
supplemented by beef, pork, rice, sugar, coffee, and occasional
fruits. These supplies as well as diesel fuel for their generators,
gasoline for their outboard engines, and videotapes are delivered
on an unpredictable schedule by a mail boat about every 12
is almost no cash economy on Palmerston. Services, labor,
and food are bartered between islanders and rare visitors.
Passing yachts play an increasingly important role in the
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© Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, 2004