In April of 2010 I went to Clipperton Island. This was a 15 day scuba diving trip on the Nautilus Explorer. This was my second trip to Clipperton. I was also on the first recreational scuba diving expedition to Clipperton in 2007.
Where is Clipperton Island?
Clipperton Island is located in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, southwest of Mexico and west of Central America at approximately 19 17 N 109 13 W. The nearest landmass is the Revillagigedo Archipelago (Islands of San Benedicto, Socorro, Roca Partida, and Clarion) which lie approximately 600 miles northwest of Clipperton Island. The Nautilus Explorer departed from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Clipperton Island is a volcanic, ring shaped coral atoll, with a circumference of approximately 7.5 miles. The center of the island is comprised of a stagnant "freshwater" lagoon with a layer of acidic water at the bottom. The lagoon emits a strong odor of rotten eggs from hydrogen sulfide.
The landmass of the island ring has an average width of about 500 feet. The widest part of the landmass is at the western end of the island at approximately 1,300 feet wide, and, the northeastern end of the island is the narrowest at about 150 feet wide. Most of the atoll is only about 6 feet above sea level. Clipperton Rock, a small volcanic outcropping, is the highest point of the island and stands approximately 70 feet above sea level.
Who Lives on Clipperton Island?
Clipperton Island is owned by France. It is administered by the French colonial high commissioner for French Polynesia. The island is uninhabited.
The island does support a large population of oceanic birds - primarily boobie birds (Brown Boobie AKA White-bellied Boobie - Sula leucogaster nesiotes, Red-footed - Sula sula websteri, and Blue-faced AKA White-faced AKA Masked Boobie - Sula dactylatra granti); a large population of red land crabs - Gecarcinus planatus; a few small lizards, and reportedly - some rats. Althouth many reports say that the lagoon does not contain fish, small fish do live in the freshwater layer - we saw them!
There are several dense groves of Coco Palms and areas of low bushy vegetation cover some of which has been reported to be goatsfoot morning-glory - Ipomoea pes-caprae.
Clipperton Island is named after the 18th century English pirate John Clipperton who may have used the island as a base for his raids on shipping. The official, but lesser used, name of the island is "Ile de la Passion" - or "Passion Island".
France established ownership of the island by annexation in the early 1700's. Left uninhabited and undefended by the French, the American Guano Mining Company laid claim to the island under the Guano Islands Act of 1856. Mexico asserted claim to the island in 1897. The final ownership of the island was arbitrated by Italian King Victor Emanuel who in 1931 declared Clipperton Island to be owned by the French.
Since the discovery of the island sporadic colonisations were attempted by France, the United States, Britain, and Mexico. The primary purpose of colonization was to mine guano.The last and largest colonization attempt was made by the British Pacific Island Company in 1906 for the purpose of mining guano. This temporary human establishment consisted of almost 100 people. Because Clipperton does not naturally have the basics to support a human population, colonists were dependent on regular visits by supply ships. It was a costly enterprise and eventually the British Pacific Island Company evacuated their employees and terminated their operations on Clipperton.
The last remaining inhabitants on Clipperton were from a small military garrison and their families who were posted in 1908 to guard the Mexican claim to the island. A ship from Acapulco was supposed to re supply them and their families every two months. However, this service was unreliable and rarely punctual. During the Mexican Revolution, the supply ships stopped coming and these outpost defenders were left forgotten, unsupplied, and stranded. Rationed food ran low and a hurricane wiped out remaining stockpiled supplies. Subsisting only on coconuts from the 13 palm trees, shore fishing, boobie birds and boobie bird eggs, a deadly epidemic of scurvy took hold. By 1917 all but one of the men on the island had died of scurvy or during a failed attempt to escape off the island.
Approximately 15 women and children, and one male, Victoriano Alvarez, were the last survivors. There was no indication that a rescue from the island would ever come.
The deaths of family members and friends, the scurvy, and the loss of hope of a rescue must have made these last survivors a little crazy. In addition they had to deal with the last remaining male, Victoriano Alvarez, an original garrison member whose task on Clipperton had been tending the Island Lighthouse. Victoriano declared himself the island king and proceeded to rape and murder the remaining survivors until he was murdered by one of the women. On July 18, 1917 - shortly after the death of Victoriano Alvarez, the last 4 remaining women and 7 children were evacuated from the island by the US Navy ship Yorktown. No further attempts to colonize the island have been made.
In 1944, during World War II, Clipperton was considered for use as a site for a US airbase. The island was occupied by the US Navy from 1944-1945.
Since 1945 there have been visits to the island by scientists, amateur radio operators, sport fishermen, tuna and shark fishermen, and the French Navy. The Nautilus Explorer has brought two groups of recreational and scientific divers to the island - in 2007 and 2010.
Two books containing information about the history of Clipperton are: "Clipperton - A History of the Island the World Forgot", by Jimmy M. Skaggs and "Isle of Passion - A Novel", by Laura Restrepo. Based on fact and interviews with survivors, with some conjecture thrown in, I really enjoyed the novel by Laura Restrepo - an excellent and recommended read!