Palmerston Atoll - photo © Ewan Smith



Palmerston Atoll
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.

Palmerston 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.

Many 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.

Coconuts 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 weeks.

There 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 island's commerce.

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© Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, 2004