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Gardner Pinnacles

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Probably the most barren and hardest to land on of all the islands of the Hawaiian chain are the Gardner Pinnacles, located 588 miles northwest of Honolulu and 108 miles northwest of French Frigate Shoal, the nearest island neighbour. The position of these pinnacles is North 25 degrees 01', 167 degrees 59' West.

These isolated, barren rocks, were discovered on June 2, 1820, by the American whaler Maro of Nantucket, under command of Captain Joseph Allen. Incidentally this vessel has the distinction of being the first of the many whalers to enter Honolulu harbour. Apparently Captain Allen did not make a landing on Gardner Pinnacles, for he greatly overestimated the size of the island, reporting it as being a mile in circumference and 900 feet high, with two large rocks at its southwest point.

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In 1857 Captain John Paty visited Gardner in the Hawaiian exploring vessel Manuokawai. He reported that the island lies 607 miles west-northwest from Honolulu and that it "is merely two almost inaccessible rocks, 200 feet high, extending north and south about one-sixth of a mile. A bank extends off to the southwest some 15 or 20 miles. The bottom seemed to be covered with detached rocks, with sandy spaces between; I had 17 fathoms of water 10 miles south of the island," he says. "I think fish are plentiful on the bank."

A number of other vessels sighted the pinnacles during the middle part of the 19th century, reporting them by such names as Man-of-War Rock, Pollard Rock, and Pollard Island. There are also various spellings of Gardner, but the United States Board of Geographic Names has decided Gardner Pinnacles is official.

Positions were given for the island by Captain Stanikowitch and by Lieutenant Brooke, U.S. Navy. The latter describes the island as an inaccessible rock 170 feet high, with a base about 600 feet long, and a smaller rock close to its southwest extremity, from which a reef makes out one-half mile. He notes the bank as having 17 to 20 fathoms of water and extending from the island on all sides, to the westward about 5 miles and southwest more than 8 miles.

Captain F.D. Walker visited Gardner in the Kaalokai, June 9, 1891. In his entertaining "Log" (published in 1909) he writes as follows:

"At noon we sighted Gardner Island, and at 2.30 were up to it.

"Gardner Island is simply a rock one hundred and seventy feet high, or thereabouts, densely covered with birds. Hundreds of frigate birds sailing majestically around it, watching with keen interest the results of the tropic birds' labours ..." He goes on to describe at length the manner in which these "highway robbers" of the bird islands harass the smaller birds as they return from fishing, and make them drop their hard-earned food, which they immediately swoop down on and catch in mid-air.

"We fired a gun and the reverberation was like distant thunder. The whole colony of birds arose, and the air was clouded with them," Captain Walker continues. 

There is no anchorage. The swell of the ocean breaks heavily even when the sea is calm. On the island's precipitous sides, the backwash or reflux rushes out a long way, making an experiment to land a very dangerous undertaking. To the westward there are a few detached rocks about seventy feet high. I could find no outlying dangers in our cruise around it, and as we could find nothing interesting or instructive to be gained, we took our departure at dusk and shaped our course for Maro Reef."

Professor Harold S. Palmer, of the University of Hawaii, in Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 35, 1927, describes the topography and geology of the island. He was not a member of the Tanager Expedition party which landed in May, 1923, but bases his descriptions upon field notes, sketches, and collections made by Dr. Stanley C. Ball, of the Bishop Museum staff. He says:

"Gardner consists of two islands which from the west or east appear as a single island, flanked by smaller northern and southern peaks. The smaller, northern peak belongs to the lesser island, which lies some 50 yards west of the north end of the larger island. A small, jagged rock rises a few feet above sea level in the channel between the two islands. Landings were made on both islands. Though it was necessary to swim to the smaller island it was possible to land directly from the surf boat onto the larger island, one or two men jumping ashore each time the waves brought the boat in and before it was fended off ..."

He goes on to describe the geologic formation of the island in some detail. All of the rocks observed on Gardner were fine-grained, dark basalt, except some weathered material thought to be tuff. All this was of volcanic origin. In cracks were found vein-like fillings of light-coloured phosphate material; and there were crusts of lime. Bird droppings were everywhere.

Dr. Palmer suggests that Gardner Pinnacles are the remains of an island which was formerly much larger, perhaps intermediate in size between Kahoolawe and Lanai, with an area of about 80 square miles. This island has been carved away by wind, rain, and waves until only the hard core of its volcanic dome remains. The island is at present surrounded by submarine banks which extend off from it about 5 miles on the east, north and west, and 10 to 12 miles on the south. This great oval has an area of about 125 square miles. The accompanying sketch map and profile above are based upon those published by Dr. Palmer from Dr. Ball's field observations on the island.

The botanists of the Tanager Expedition were able to take the day off. The steep slopes of Gardner Pinnacles are bare of vegetation, except for small pockets of purslane (Portulaca), and algae on the lower, moist surfaces. The late Gerrit P. Wilder collected a small sample of the Portulaca, but the specimen refused to dry, which is usual with this fleshy herb, and it is not positively known which of two species of purslane it is.

The insect collectors of the party apparently also took a holiday, although Dr. Ball and Major Chapman Grant managed to collect two small flies, a moth, the case of another moth, and one earwig. They also reported seeing mites, spiders, centipedes and isopods among the loose rock, but unfortunately did not catch any.

Of archaeological remains there were none. In fact, it is doubtful if many persons have set foot upon the steep, slippery slopes, which are so hard to approach.

Official estimates of the heights of the three conical pinnacles, two on one base and one on the other, are 90, 100 and 170 feet, the water passage being between 90 and 170 foot peaks. But nautical charts give the maximum height as 190 feet.

The island became an "integral part of the United States" on July 7, 1898, and a part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation on February 3, 1909. Officially it is a portion of the Territory of Hawaii and of the City and County of Honolulu, helping with Pearl and Hermes Reef, to the westward, and Palmyra, far away to the south, to make Honolulu the city of largest dimensions in the world. Administration is jointly divided between the Honolulu City Fathers and the United States Department of Agriculture's wildlife bureau, who rule over population of birds and little else.

Guano on Gardner Pinnacles

Scientists counting birds at Gardner Pinnacles

The landing area on Gardner Pinnacles

The above photographs are courtesy of NOAA.

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