Palmerston Atoll is a strange place. In many respects its just another one of the South Pacific’s beautiful atolls. Its turquoise lagoon is surrounded by a vibrant coral reef and coconut palm covered beaches. Supply ships make the 250 mile trek to the island two to three times a year, refilling the inhabitants freezers with frozen chicken and ice cream. But what makes the island so unique is not its stunning beauty and relative isolation, its the people.
The atoll boasts a bustling population of approximately 50, all of whom can easily be categorized into one of two groups:
A) descendants of one Englishman ‘Father’ William Marsters, or B) shipwrecked sailors.
Rumor has it that William Marsters obtained the land from England and settled there with four wives, each of whom was placed on one of the Atoll’s islands (the islanders still speak with a British accent of sorts). Of course if you take a single family put them on an atoll with little to no contact with the outside world, you’re setting yourself up for some hillybilly style inter-marriage. I’m not sure how William Marsters handled that issue back in his day, but these days when it comes time to marry, Marsters hitch a ride to Rarotonga on one of the supply ships. Back on the ‘mainland’ they find themselves a spouse and (possibly) return to the island. After multiple generations of this a reasonably large portion of the cook islands population must somehow be related to William Marsters. (In fact our first interaction with one of the Marsters was back in Aitutaki where a local family took Ruby Soho and us under their wing and even killed/cooked us a pig.)
Of the approximately 50 inhabitants, 25 are children and the island has been set up with a surprisingly well equiped school complete with an additional special needs teacher (the daughter of a shipwrecked sailor from the 50s — see category B). The majority of adults find themselves employed by the islands administrative office which has managed to create a beaurocracy that would make Italy proud. I particularly enjoyed overhearing this conversation while getting a tour of the admin building:
“So I can’t use this red wire then?” said Andy (a category B inhabitant), who was trying to install a HAM radio for the admin office.
“Sorry Andy our protocol says you need a black wire for the ground”.
“You are aware that for AC appliances you need a green wire for ground right?”
“It says here in our rules we need a black wire”. And so it was.
Palmerston is just a small detour off one of the more frequently sailed routes from French Polynesia to Tonga making it a popular rest stop along the way. Somewhere around 50-100 boats a year pass through the atoll and thanks to their administration office each visiting boat is assigned a local host and visited by customs officals. We were assigned to Simon’s family and they would come pick us up in their skiff, bring us to land, make us lunch and give us tours of the island. We earned our keep by helping them with some of their computer problems (Palmerston island runs linux!).
Our stay was marked by poor weather, a system was just passing through causing light westerly winds that blew directly into the anchorage making it a bit bouncy and forcing us to keep a 24 hour anchor watch to make sure we didn’t end up shipwrecked on the reef (see category B). Back at the boat we spent the majority of the time in the water. The surrounding reef is extremely healthy and the water visibility easily pushed 150 feet. Pelagic (read: delicious) fish would swim up within feet of us all but begging for us to spear them. Most mornings a whale would pass by our boat, sometimes surfacing just a couple boat lengths away, we could hear them singing/groaning while free-diving.
The island was beautiful, the people friendly and the water full of life … but after a few days we were ready to push on. Our next stops: Beveridge Reef (where we swam with overly curious sharks) and Niue (where ate lots and lots of indian food).