Phoenix Islands

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WorldSouth PacificKiribatiPhoenix Islands
Phoenix Islands
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The Phoenix Islands, Kiribati

The Phoenix Islands are a group of eight atolls and two submerged coral reefs, lying in the central Pacific Ocean east of the Gilbert Islands and west of the Line Islands. They are a part of the Republic of Kiribati. During the late 1930s they became the site of the last attempted colonial expansion of the British Empire (the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme). The islands and surrounding areas are home to some 120 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish. On January 28, 2008, the government of Kiribati formally declared the entire Phoenix group and surrounding waters a protected area, making its 410,500 square kilometres the world's largest marine protected area.

The group is uninhabited except for a few families on Kanton (41 people according to the 2005 census). The United States unincorporated territories of Baker Island and Howland Island are often considered northerly outliers of the group, in the geographical sense. Howland and Baker are statistically grouped with the United States Minor Outlying Islands, however. The Phoenix Islands (not including the reefs) were all claimed by the United States at some point, but most came under British dominion prior to Kiribati independence.

At various times, the islands were considered part of the Gilbert group (once also known as "Kingsmill"). The name "Phoenix" for this group of islands seems to have been settled on in the 1840s, after an island of that name within the group. Phoenix Island was probably named after one of the many whaleships of that name plying these waters in the early nineteenth century.

The chain comprises a portion of Kiribati. The only island of any commercial or historical importance is Kanton (or Abariringa) Island. The other islands include Enderbury, Rawaki (formerly Phoenix), Manra (formerly Sydney), Birnie, McKean, Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner), and Orona (formerly Hull).

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Islands in the Group

Kanton Island

Kanton, or Abariringa Island, is the northernmost and sole (as of 2007) inhabited island in the Phoenix group. It is a narrow ribbon of land (9 sq. km. in area), enclosing a lagoon of approximately 40 sq. km. Kanton is mostly bare coral, covered with herbs, bunch grasses, low shrubs and a few trees. Its lagoon teems with 153 known spieces of marine life, including sharks, tuna, stingrays and eels. Land fauna includes at least 23 bird species, lizards, rats, hermit crabs and turtles.

Once an important trans-Pacific airport and refueling station, Kanton declined in importance with the introduction of long-range jet aircraft in the late 1950s, and was eventually abandoned after serving a brief stint as a U.S. missile-tracking station. Today, the island still exhibits the remains of the airline and military presence, with 41 persons (as of 2005) residing there, most living in abandoned structures from the U.S./U.K. occupation (1936-1976).

Enderbury Island

Enderbury Island is a low, flat, small coral atoll lying 63 km ESE of Kanton. Its lagoon is rather tiny, comprising only a small percentage of the island's area. Herbs, bunchgrass, morning-glory vines and a few clumps of trees form the main vegetation on the island, while birds, rats and a species of beetle are the known fauna. Heavily mined for guano in the late 1800s, Enderbury has seen little human impact following the evacuation of the last few colonists (four in number) in 1942, during World War II.

Birnie Island

Birnie Island is a small, flat coral island about 20 hectares in area, measuring 1.2 km long by 0.5 km wide. It contains a tiny lagoon, which has all but dried up. A nesting place for flocks of seabirds, Birnie is devoid of trees and is instead covered with low shrubs and grass. Unlike most of the other Phoenix Islands, Birnie does not appear to have been worked for guano or otherwise exploited by humans. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1975.

McKean Island

McKean Island is the northwesternmost island of the Phoenix group. Its area is 57 hectares, and devoid of fresh water or trees, though it does have a hypersaline lagoon in its center. Carpeted with low herbs and grasses, McKean provides a sanctuary for the world's largest nesting population of lesser frigatebird (Fregata ariel), with a population of up to 85,000 birds. Actively worked for guano in the mid-nineteenth century, it was abandoned by 1870, and no further use has been made of it.

Rawaki Island

Rawaki, or Phoenix Island, measures approximately 1.2 km by 0.8 km, and covers 65 hectares in area. Its lagoon is shallow and salty, with no connection to the ocean. It does, however, have several freshwater pools, the only known freshwater wetlands in the Phoenix Islands. Treeless, Rawaki is covered with herbs and grasses and provides another important landing site for migratory seabirds. Worked for guano from 1859 to 1871, Rawaki was abandoned and no human use seems to have been made of it thereafter.

Manra Island

Manra, or Sydney Island, measures approximately 3.2 km by 2.8 km, with a large, salty lagoon with depths reportedly varying from five to six meters. The island is covered with coconut palms, scrub forest, herbs, and grasses, including the species Tournefortia, Pisonia, Morinda, Cordia, Guettarda, and Scaevola. Manra contains definite evidence of prehistoric inhabitation, in the form of at least a dozen platforms and remains of enclosures in the northeast and northwest portions of the island. K.P. Emory, the ethnologist at Honolulu's Bishop Museum, estimated that two groups of people were present on Manra, one from Eastern Polynesia, the other from Micronesia. Wells and pits from these early inhabitants were also found.

Extensively worked for guano, Manra was turned into a copra plantation in the early twentieth century. In 1938, Manra was selected as one of three atolls for use in the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, which represented the last expansion of the British Empire. Plagued by drought and the death of the project's organizer, together with the effects of World War II and the declining copra market, Manra was abandoned in 1963.

Orona Island

Orona, or Hull Island, measures approximately 8.8 km by 4 km, and like Kanton, is a narrow ribbon of land surrounding a sizable lagoon with depths of 15-20 meters. Like Manra, it is covered with coconut palms, scrub forest, and grasses; it also contains evidence of prehistoric Polynesian inhabitation. An ancient stone marae stands on the eastern tip of the island, together with ruins of shelters, graves and other platforms. Unlike Manra, Orona does not seem to have been worked for guano, but became a coconut plantation and a part of the British Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme. Residents were evacuated in 1963, due to drought and the declining copra market.


Nikumaroro, or Gardner Island, is approximately 6 km long by 2 km wide, enclosing a large central lagoon. Vegitation is profuse, including scrub forest, coconut palms and herbs. Large quantities of birds nest on the island, which was once the headquarters for the British colonial officer heading up the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, Gerald Gallagher. Gallagher constructed a village on the western end of the atoll, with wide coral-paved streets, a parade ground, cooperative store, administrative center and residence, and radio shack.
Tragically, Gallagher died on Nikumaroro in 1941, and was buried on the island (where his grave can still be seen, though his remains were later moved to Tarawa). Like the other atolls in the settlement project, Nikumaroro was abandoned in 1963 due to the scarcity of fresh water, together with the declining market for copra produced on the island.

In recent years, Nikumaroro has become a news item due to a theory that Amelia Earhart might have crash-landed her plane on the island during her fateful around-the-world attempt in 1937.


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