Clipperton Island

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Clipperton Island

Clipperton Island (French: Île de Clipperton and sometimes Île de la Passion) is an uninhabited seven-square-kilometer coral atoll in the North Pacific Ocean, 1,300 km southwest of Mexico, at 10°18′ N 109°13′ W.

It is a possession of France administered from French Polynesia by a high commissioner of the Republic. Its data code is IP.

Map of Clipperton Island
Map of Clipperton Island

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

It lies about 965 km from Tejupan Point on Mancanilla Bay, Mexico, the nearest mainland. The ring-shaped island has completely enclosed its lagoon for approximately a century and is about 8 km (5 miles) in circumference. The lagoon has acidic water at the bottom and is stagnant. Clipperton Rock, at 21 m (69 ft), is the highest point.

The island has a tropical oceanic climate, with average temperatures of 20–32°C. The rainy season occurs in May–October, and the island is subject to tropical storms. Surrounding ocean waters are warm with a westerly current, which flows directly from the mainland.



Clipperton Island is largely covered with scrub vegetation, with a few stands of coconut palms.

The scrub vegetation seems to have disappeared for sometime between 1858 and 1917, however. 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. It is hypothesized that the vegetation may have been decimated by a tropical storm, and was then unable to regenerate due to the large population of land crabs. There also is a August 24, 1909 article from the San Francisco Chronicle speculating on the possibility that a group on Clipperton Island 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), 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). At 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.

Coconut palms on Clipperton Island
Coconut palms on Clipperton Island
Map of Clipperton Island
Map of Clipperton Island


Clipperton Island was originally discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, but was later named after John Clipperton, an English pirate and privateer who fought the Spanish during the early 18th century and who used the island as a base for his raids on shipping.

In 1708, two French ships, 'Princess' and 'Découverte', reached the island and named it 'Île de la Passion', 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 April 1831, John Fitzgerald on his way to San Blas from Callao discovered an island at 18°30′ N 114°33′ W not shown on any chart.

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 by the Oceanic Phosphate Company with Mexico in 1848-49. On 17 November 1858, under Napoleon III, the French annexed Clipperton as part of Tahiti. Mexico reasserted its claim over the island in 1897 and established a military outpost on the island. The US again held it briefly during the Spanish American War of 1898.

In 1906, the British Pacific Island Company acquired the rights to Clipperton's guano deposits and, in conjunction with the Mexican government, built a mining settlement. That same year, a lighthouse was erected under the orders of President Porfirio Díaz, and a military garrison under Capt. Ramón 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 the island 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, most of the men 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 the 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. In July 1917, almost immediately following Álvarez's death, three women and two 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 task to the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, who declared one year later that Clipperton was 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 the late 1930s, Clipperton was visited twice by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who wanted it to become an US possession for use as an airbase for Pacific Ocean operations and, in 1944, he ordered the navy to occupy the island 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.

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.

During the 1970s the French explored reopening the lagoon and developing a harbour for trade and tourism. In 1981, the Academy of Sciences for Overseas Territories recommended that the island should 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 State, 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 small island Clipperton (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. The French then planned to dump nuclear waste on the island; perhaps fortunately, Mexico and the United States convinced France to not implement that plan.

Clipperton Island - NASA NLT Landsat 7 (Visible Color) Satellite Image
Clipperton Island - NASA NLT Landsat 7 (Visible Color) Satellite Image

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 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.

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

Clipperton is often used by the French as a self-deprecating ironic reference to the importance of the French oversea possessions.

See also: Islands controlled by France in the Indian and Pacific oceans

External links


  • Edwin D. Dickinson, The Clipperton Island Case. American Journal of International Law, Vol. 27, No. 1., pp. 130-133.
  • Pitman, R. L. and Jehl, J. R. 1998. Geographic variation and reassessment of species limits in the "masked" boobies of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Wilson Bulletin 110:155-170.
  • Sachet, M. H. 1962. Flora and vegetation of Clipperton Island. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences. 4th ser., v.31, no.10. The Academy, San Francisco.
  • Snodgrass, R. E. and E. Heller. 1902. The birds of Clipperton and Cocos Islands; Papers from the Hopkins Stanford Galapagos expedition 1898-1899. The Academy, Washington, DC.
  • UNEP/IUCN. 1988. Coral Reefs of the World. Volume 3: Central and Western Pacific. UNEP Regional Seas Directories and Bibliographies. IUCN/UNEP, Gland, Switzerland, Cambridge, UK, and Nairobi, Kenya.
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