Clipperton or bust
June 23, 2008 4:29 PM   Subscribe

1200 kilometers southwest of Acapulco lies the only atoll in the eastern Pacific: one of France's most isolated overseas possessions. First named for an English pirate/buccaneer/privateer, written about here by one John Harris in 1744, the island has changed hands numerous times: claimed by France as part of Tahiti, claimed by the US under the Guano Islands Act of 1856. The island remained uninhabited until 1906, when a British and Mexican mission began mining guano (still in demand today, though sources can now be found a little closer to home). The atoll was thought to have been polished off entirely by an earthquake rumored to have sunk the islands outright in August of 1909.

Sovereignty over the atoll passed back and forth between France and Mexico again until the Vatican, given the task of arbitrating the dispute, passed the decision to the Emperor of Italy, who on January 28, 1931, decided that Clipperton was French: JSTOR link here. (Full citation if you've got access: Edwin D. Dickinson, "The Clipperton Island Case". The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan., 1933), pp. 130-133).

Since then, Clipperton has been the object of FDR's attention, who visited en route to the Galapagos in the hopes of creating a seaplane stop en route to Australia, an amateur radio enthusiast destination, a new destination for commercial diving operations (huge album of photos!), and most recently a scientific research base, chronicled for English speakers in a 2003 National Geographic expedition with Lance Milbrand, and televised for French viewers on the program Expedition: Clipperton, which includes a fantastic, if Francophone, photo album of discoveries made on the island, in its surrounding waters, and in its freshwater lagoon.

Google Books possesses a copy of a recent history of the island, which goes into the motivation for FDR's visit to the island in 1938. Here's a shot of some leftover American ammunition.

Given the island's massive exclusive economic zone - which covers an area nearly the size of metropolitan France itself - the place will certainly be on the radar from now on.

And no post about a isolated, uninhabited tropical island in 2008 would be complete without the Wikipedia article that I found which started this little adventure today, and a link to a relevant Flickr photo this case, a set of amateur radio operators.
posted by mdonley (11 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The existence of the Guano Islands Act of 1856 justifies the creation of a new 'birdshitinsane' tag.
posted by davejay at 4:37 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, fair warning: that Flickr photo set is full of flying boobies.
posted by davejay at 4:40 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jacques Cousteau made an unusual film of the island in 1981: Cousteau Odyssey 3: Clipperton - The Island Time Forgot. This was Cousteaus darkest film, an exploration of death. From "Cousteu and the Pit":
Almost a decade before Cousteau landed at Clipperton, his son Philippe had visited the atoll and filmed the varied marine life of the open seas around it. Cousteau used some of this footage, but edited it to tell a different story in which death and suffering were the overriding themes. Cousteau dwells on the story of a group of Mexicans living on the island in the early 20th century, of how the lighthouse keeper went mad and terrorised the women until they murdered him.

Death is the overriding theme of the film, especially Clipperton's violent history and the fearful relationship between predator and prey on the reef. It seems strangely downbeat for the great ambassador of the sea, but it makes more sense when you consider this film in the context of what was happening in the Captain's own life during this period. In June 1979, a year before Cousteau flew to Clipperton, Philippe had died while testing the seaplane, Flying Calypso, in Portugal. Philippe had been groomed as the one to take over the Cousteau Society, and his loss was a major blow to the whole Cousteau empire. At the time, Cousteau issued a statement that appeared unemotional, stating his determination to keep moving forward, but the loss of his son affected him deeply. For months, he retreated from his beloved world of expeditions and appearances, and could not bear to go diving as it brought back such painful memories. Perhaps it is understandable, then, that he should choose such a grim, punishing dive to publicly reacquaint himself with the underwater world.

Unable to bring himself to film a tribute to his son, he confronted his demons by producing the darkest of his filmed work, reflecting the depth of his despair. The other films in this set remind us of the Captain's drive, his charm and his poetry, but in Clipperton we see his complexity and his obsession with death, a product of the diverse imagination that gave the diving world its most famous standard-bearer.
posted by stbalbach at 5:53 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

I would like to mention that Clipperton is really fun to say over and over with a heavy French accent.

posted by redteam at 6:00 PM on June 23, 2008

There's bat guano, and there's Bat Guano.
posted by Mike D at 6:06 PM on June 23, 2008

Between that and Saint-Pierre & Miquelon you could, in theory, concoct a round-the-world plane trip and only ever touch down in French territory. I assume there's some French territory remaining in Asia and/or Africa. Although to be fair, you probably can't actually land a plane on Clipperton.
posted by GuyZero at 6:13 PM on June 23, 2008

So is this one of those corners of a forgotton field that is for ever France?
posted by Bromius at 6:18 PM on June 23, 2008

Islands controlled by France in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Includes this island off Madagascar with a population of nearly 1 million - Réunion. Wow!
posted by Chuckles at 6:30 PM on June 23, 2008

Awesome post. Thanks.
posted by procrastination at 8:06 PM on June 23, 2008

Fascinating stuff!
posted by gomichild at 10:15 PM on June 23, 2008

GuyZero: there may be a landing strip of sorts - this 1956 French survey map seems to have one planned/outlined on the northwest coast, and the map from the Expedition: Clipperton site linked in the post have an area for "aterrisage" - landing - marked in the same area, though you'd have a tough time finding a plane that could get you there from the Marquesas, which seem to be the closest possible take-off point under the tricolour. Possible route here!

Chuckles: Here's an interesting little Reunion tidbit from the Wikipedia article you link to:
Réunion is an outermost region of the European Union, and thus the currency used is the euro. In fact, due to its location in a time zone to the east of Europe, Réunion was the first region in the world to use the euro, and the first ever purchase using the euro occurred at 12.01 a.m., when the former mayor of Saint-Denis René-Paul Victoria bought a bag of lychees at a market.
posted by mdonley at 11:00 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

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