About the Expedition

On January 21, 2010, scientists from the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division of the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (CRED/PIFSC), along with visiting scientists from the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego State University, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and local agencies in American Samoa, departed on a three month expedition to Johnston Atoll, Howland and Baker Islands, American Samoa, Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll, and Kingman Reef aboard the NOAA Ship Hi'ialakai. This is the fifth biennial Pacific Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (Pacific RAMP) expedition to American Samoa and the seventh to the Pacific Remote Island Areas. The expedition is sponsored by NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP) and is divided into three segment sequentially led by Chief Scientists Benjamin Richards, Rusty Brainard and Jamison Gove.


Monday, February 1, 2010

A Little About Howland

by Russell Reardon
photographs courtesy of the National Archives and US Fish & Wildlife Service

Three days of transit down ... one day to go. Our next stop is Howland Island, a low, flat, sandy bit of an island with a narrow fringing reef, positioned some 50 miles north of the equator and 1,600 miles southwest of Honolulu. Uninhabited and vegetated only by grasses, vines, and shrubs, the island provides important nesting and roosting habitat for hundreds of thousands of seabirds and shorebirds.

Howland sound familiar? Did you see the movie “Earhart” with Hilary Swank? (We just watched it here on the ship the other night.) Howland Island is most recognized as being the scheduled refueling stop-over that Amelia Earhart never reached on her ill-fated bid to fly around the world in 1937. But, there is more to it than that. Evidence suggests that Polynesians visited the island long before its discovery by Europeans. Although there is no freshwater source, these ancient mariners may have used the island as a resting or gathering place during their voyages across the Pacific. At least three whaling vessels visited or sighted the uninhabited island in the early 19th century before it was officially named Howland Island in 1842.

The American Guano Company claimed Howland in 1857 and guano mining began in 1861. Guano was mined by companies from both the US and Great Britain, and both countries claimed it as sovereign territory. All told, an estimated 85,000 to 100,000 tons of guano were removed between 1861 and 1890! Evidence of the mining remains today as large excavated basins and mounds of low-grade guano. When the guano deposits were exhausted, Howland was abandoned.

In 1935 in an effort to reinforce the US claim to the island, a rotating group of four alumni and students from the Kamehameha School for Boys in Honolulu was sent to colonize the island, establishing a permanent settlement known at Itascatown (named after the USCG Cutter Itasca which dropped them off and regularly worked the area).

In 1937, an airfield was built in anticipation that the island might eventually be used as a stop-over for a commercial trans-Pacific air route. Most notably, Howland Island was the scheduled refueling stop for Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan on their flight between New Guinea and Hawaii. Though Earhart’s radio transmissions could be heard from Howland, Earhart and Noonan were lost en route. What exactly happened to them remains a mystery to this day.

In 1941, Howland entered World War II with a Japanese air attack on December 8, 1941, that killed two of the colonists and damaged the airfield. Two days later a Japanese submarine shelled what was left of Itascatown’s few buildings and a single bomber returned twice during the following weeks to drop more bombs on the rubble. The only two survivors of the attacks were finally evacuated at the end of January 1942. In 1943, Howland was reoccupied by the US Marines and became known as Howland Naval Air Station until May 1944. All attempts at habitation were abandoned after 1944, which was probably just fine with the multitude of sea birds that come to Howland. Howland Island was established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974. Visitation to the refuge is by special use permit only. As with Johnston Atoll (our previous stop) and Baker Island (our next stop), Howland Island and it’s environs are part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Marine Monument, established in 2009 by President George W. Bush.

Like at Johnston, our US Fish and Wildlife Service partners will be camping on Howland Island during our 3 days there, surveying the land while we survey the surrounding waters.


  1. Great post, Russell! Keep 'em coming. --Kris

  2. Thank you for that great history! The Marine Science class of Samoana High School enjoys reading your blogs and looks forward to when you make it to American Samoa. -Monica Lui