Clipperton Island

Introduction This isolated island was named for John CLIPPERTON, a pirate who made it his hideout early in the 18th century. Annexed by France in 1855, it was seized by Mexico in 1897. Arbitration eventually awarded the island to France, which took possession in 1935.

Clipperton's name comes from John Clipperton, an English pirate and privateer who in 1704 fought the Spanish during the early 18th century and is said to have passed by the island. Some others say he used the island as a hidden base for his raids on shipping together with 21 companions, yet there is no text that ever proved the version. He was however the first one to describe and map the island. The legend might have helped keep his name alive to the present day. [1]

Its real name, Île de la Passion ("Passion island"), was officially given in 1711 by French discoverers Martin de Chassiron and Michel Du Bocage, commanding the French ships La Princesse and La Découverte, who reached the island, drew the first map, and annexed it for France. The first scientific expedition took place in 1725 by the Frenchman M. Bocage, who lived on the island for several months. In 1858 it was formally claimed by France.

The American Guano Mining Company, under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, claimed the island for the United States of America, with earlier claim disputes to island guano tracing back to the Oceanic Phosphate Company with Mexico in 1848-49.

On November 17, 1858, under Emperor Napoleon III, the French annexed Clipperton as part of their South Sea colony Tahiti. Mexico reasserted its claim over the island, on December 13, 1897, occupying and annexing it, and established a military outpost on the island; it appointed military governors from that time, including Ramón Arnaud (1906-15). The US again held it briefly during the Spanish American War of 1898.

The British Pacific Island Company acquired the rights in 1906 to Clipperton's guano deposits and, in conjunction with the Mexican government, built a mining settlement. That year, a lighthouse was erected under the orders of President Porfirio Díaz, and a military garrison under Captain Arnaud of the Mexican army was sent to the island. By 1914, about 100 people – men, women, and children – were living on the island. Every two months, a ship from Acapulco sailed to Clipperton with provisions. However, with the escalation of fighting in the Mexican Revolution, the atoll was no longer reachable by ship, and the island's inhabitants were left to their own devices.

By 1915, most of the inhabitants had died, and the last settlers wanted to leave on the US Navy warship Lexington, which had reached the atoll in late 1915. However, the Mexican military governor declared that evacuation was not necessary.

By 1917, all but one of the males on the island had died, some in a failed attempt to sail to the mainland and fetch help. The lighthouse keeper, Victoriano Álvarez, found himself the last man on Clipperton island, along with 15 women and children. Álvarez promptly proclaimed himself king and began a rampage of rape and murder, before being killed by one of the recipients of his attentions, the widow of garrison commander Captain Ramón Arnaud. On July 18, 1917, almost immediately following Álvarez's death, four women and six children, the last survivors, were picked up by the US Navy gunship USS Yorktown.

Ownership of Clipperton was then disputed between France and Mexico. France approached the Vatican for a decision on ownership and, in 1930, the Vatican assigned the arbitration to the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, who on January 28, 1931, declared Clipperton a French possession. The French rebuilt the lighthouse and settled a military outpost on the island, which remained for seven years before being abandoned. In 1935 France took possession; it has since been administered by the French colonial high commissioner for French Polynesia.

In the late 1930s, Clipperton was visited twice by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wanted it to become a US possession for use as an airbase for Pacific Ocean operations. In 1944, he ordered the US Navy to occupy the island (until 1945) in one of the most secret US operations of World War II. Rear Admiral Byrd undertook several expeditions to the island to assess its potential as an airbase.

The island has been abandoned since WW II; since then it has only been visited by sport fishermen, regularly scheduled patrols by the French Navy, and Mexican tuna and shark fishermen. There have been infrequent scientific and amateur radio expeditions, and, on one occasion, Jacques-Yves Cousteau visited with his team of divers and a survivor from the 1917 evacuation.

In 1962, the independence of Algeria threatened further French nuclear testing at Algerian sites. The French Ministry of Defence considered Clipperton as a possible replacement test site; however, due to the island's hostile climate and remote location, this was eventually ruled out.

The French explored reopening the lagoon and developing a harbour for trade and tourism during the 1970s. An automatic weather installation was completed on April 7, 1980. The data collected by this station are transmitted directly by satellite to Brittany.

In 1981, the Academy of Sciences for Overseas Territories recommended that the island have its own economic infrastructure, with an airstrip and a fishing port in the lagoon. This meant opening up the lagoon by creating a passage in the atoll rim. For this purpose, an agreement whereby the island became state property was signed with the French government, represented by the High Commissioner for French Polynesia. On October 13, 1986, a meeting took place regarding the establishment of a permanent base for fishing on or near Clipperton, between the high commissioner for the republic in French Polynesia, representing the state, and the survey firm for the development and exploitation of the island (SEDEIC). Taking into account the economic constraints, the distance, and the small size of the atoll, no plan, apart from studies, was undertaken to carry out this project. In conclusion, plans for development of Clipperton were abandoned.

In 1988, five Mexican fishermen became lost at sea after a storm that occurred during their trip along the coast of Costa Rica. They drifted as far as to see Clipperton, but were unable to reach it.[2]

The Mexican and French oceanographic expedition SURPACLIP (UNAM Mexico and UNC Nouméa) made extensive studies in 1997 on and around the island. In 2001, French geographer Ch. Jost extended the 1997 studies through his French "Passion 2001" expedition, explaining the evolution of the ecosystem, and releasing several papers, a video film, and a website [1]. In 2003 Lance Milbrand stayed on the island for 41 days on a National Geographic Society expedition, recording his adventure in video, photos, and a written diary (links below).

In 2005, Clipperton's ecosystem was extensively studied for four months by a scientific mission organized by Jean-Louis Étienne, which was to make a complete inventory of mineral, plant, and animal species found on the atoll, study algae as deep as 100 m below sea level, study pollution, etc.

On February 21, 2007, the administration of Clipperton was transferred from the High Commissioner of the Republic in French Polynesia to the Minister of Overseas France. [2]

A recreational scuba diving expedition by the liveaboard scuba diving vessel M/V Nautilus Explorer dove the reefs around Clipperton from April 15 to April 20, 2007 to observe the marine life and compare against life reported during the Connie Limbaugh (Scripps) expeditions in 1956 and 1958.

Geography Location: Middle America, atoll in the North Pacific Ocean, 1,120 km southwest of Mexico
Geographic coordinates: 10 17 N, 109 13 W
Map references: Political Map of the World
Area: total: 6 sq km
land: 6 sq km
water: 0 sq km
Area - comparative: about 12 times the size of The Mall in Washington, DC
Land boundaries: 0 km
Coastline: 11.1 km
Maritime claims: territorial sea: 12 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
Climate: tropical; humid, average temperature 20-32 degrees C, wet season (May to October)
Terrain: coral atoll
Elevation extremes: lowest point: Pacific Ocean 0 m
highest point: Rocher Clipperton 29 m
Natural resources: fish
Land use: arable land: 0%
permanent crops: 0%
other: 100% (all coral) (2005)
Irrigated land: 0 sq km
Natural hazards: NA
Environment - current issues: NA
Geography - note: reef 12 km in circumference
Natural conditions

Clipperton Island lies about 945 km (587 mi, 510 nmi) from Socorro island in the Revillagigedo archipelago, Mexico, the nearest land. The ring-shaped island has completely enclosed its lagoon for approximately a century and is 12 km in circumference. The lagoon has some deep basins (−43 m, −22 m) and one deep spot ("Trou-Sans-Fond", meaning bottomless hole) with acidic water (sulphuric acid) at the bottom and is stagnant. The lagoon is devoid of fish. Clipperton Rock, at 29 m, is the highest point. It is a volcanic outcrop located in the southeast.

The island has a tropical oceanic climate, with average temperatures of 20–32 °C (68–90 °F). The rainy season occurs May–October, and the island is subject to tropical storms. Surrounding ocean waters are warm, pushed by equatorial and counter-equatorial currents.

Although 115 species of fish have been identified in the territorial waters of Clipperton, the only economic activity is tuna fishing. It has no other natural resources.


Clipperton is now almost a desert, as it was during the 19th century, but 80 percent of the island was covered with grassland after the Mexican occupation and the introduction of pigs at the beginning of the 20th century.

When Snodgrass and Heller visited the island in 1898, they reported that "no land plant is native to the island." (Snodgrass and Heller 1902). Sachet (1962), however, points out that according to historical accounts from the island in 1711, 1825, and likely in 1839, the island had a low grassy and/or suffrutescent (partially woody) vegetation. Due to the elimination of pigs, which disturbed birds but also ate crabs, in 1958, the vegetation cover has progressively disappeared with the attacks of the millions of crabs (Gecarcinus planatus). Today there are only 674 coconut palms (counted by C. Jost during the "Passion 2001" French mission) and five islets in the lagoon with little grass that these terrestrial crabs cannot reach. There also exists an August 24, 1909, article from the San Francisco Chronicle speculating on the possibility that a group of palms on Clipperton was washed over by a tsunami caused by an earthquake.

After the introduction of pigs by guano miners, the flora was able to re-establish itself as the pigs helped to keep the land crabs in check (Sachet 1962). During the period of settlement, the island's flora was multiplied by the introduction of alien species; coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) were introduced in the 1890s.

According to Sachet's visit in 1958, the vegetation is a sparse cover of spiny grass and low thickets, a creeping plant (Ipomoea sp.), and stands of coconut palm. This low-lying herbaceous vegetation appears to be pioneer in nature, and the majority is believed to be composed of recently introduced species. Sachet suspected that the sedges (Heliotropium curassavicum and possibly Portulaca oleracea) are native in origin (Sachet 1962). On the northwest side of the island, at least, the most abundant species are Cenchrus echinatus, Sida rhombifolia, and Corchorus aestuans. These plants compose a shrub cover up to 30 cm in height and are intermixed with Eclipta, Phyllanthus, and Solanum, as well as a taller plant, Brassica juncea. An interesting feature was observed in that the vegetation is arranged in parallel rows of species; dense rows of taller species alternate with lower, more open vegetation. This was assumed to be a result of the phosphate mining method of digging trenches.

People Population: uninhabited
Government Country name: conventional long form: none
conventional short form: Clipperton Island
local long form: none
local short form: Ile Clipperton
former: sometimes called Ile de la Passion
Dependency status: possession of France; administered directly by the Minister of Overseas France
Legal system: the laws of France, where applicable, apply
Flag description: the flag of France is used
Economy Ports and terminals: none; offshore anchorage only
Transportation Ports and terminals: none; offshore anchorage only
Military Military - note: defense is the responsibility of France
Transnational Issues Disputes - international: none