In some ways Laysan Island is the most fascinating and in some ways the most unfortunate of all the tiny dots of land in the "little end of Hawaii." In former days it supported the largest albatross rookery of the entire chain. Although at no time during its recorded history did it reach an elevation of more than fifty feet above sea level, still in it once grew groves of sandalwood trees, dense thickets of bushes, and native fan palms, beneath whose shade there evolved five species of land birds, endemic to this island and not known elsewhere. And all this on an area of but two square miles of sand and coral.
As a result of all the sea bird life, great beds of valuable guano were deposited. This material was formed by the chemical interaction between coral sand and the droppings of myriads of birds during countless years. Man found that guano was a fine fertiliser for his crops. So when guano deposits were located on Laysan, man soon found the way there to dig and ship it; and, as usual to upset the nicely adjusted balance which Nature had established there.
Poachers also were attracted to Laysan by the great numbers of birds, and ruthlessly they slaughtered hundreds of thousands for their feathers. And for food measure, rabbits and guinea pigs were introduced, which so completely are off the remains of the vegetation that the very existence of the birds was threatened, and some kinds became extinct.
Laysan is located 790 sea miles to the northwest of Honolulu, in latitude 25 degrees 42' 14" North, longitude 171 degrees 44' 04" West of Greenwich. Its nearest neighbours are Lisianski, 115 miles to the west; Gardner Pinnacles, 202 miles to the southeast; and Pearl and Hermes Reef, 260 miles to the northwest.
The island is shaped like a large Hawaiian poi-pounding board or oval serving dish, about a mile wide by two miles long, north and south. Some authorities have estimated its size as larger. But the careful survey made in April 1923 by the Tanager Expedition made the maximum length 9375 feet and greatest width 5580 feet, which in land miles is one and four-fifths by a trifle over one. The accompanying map is from this survey, after the original by Major Chapman Grant.
The surface is composed of loosely packed coral sand, with beds of coral reef and phosphate rock on the south and west sides. The beaches rise abruptly from the water's edge to a height of 15 to 18 feet, then flatten out to a maximum height of 30 to 40 feet, and then slope gradually downward to a central depression, part of which is occupied by a salty lake without connection with the sea. The surface of this lake is somewhat above sea level, and its depth formerly was more than fifteen feet. But so much sand has drifted into this basin, while the island was denuded of vegetation, that now it is probably much shallower.
William Alanson Bryan has suggested that Laysan once was a small atoll, the whole of which was elevated with reference to ocean level. It is surrounded by coral reefs, which on the western side are indented to form a snug landing place for small boats, with a safe anchorage off shore, so long as the trade winds blow and this is the lee side.
This island is reported to have been an American discovery, but the details are not available. Not knowing of the earlier visit, Captain Stanikowitch, who sited the island on March 12, 1828, named it Moller Island after his ship.
On May 1, 1857, Captain John Paty annexed the island to the Hawaiian kingdom in the course of his famous fifty day voyage of discovery aboard the Hawaiian schooner Manuokawai. Said Captain Paty in his report:
"This is a low sand island 25 to 30 feet high, 3 miles long and 1.1/2 broad. The surface is covered with beach grass, and half a dozen palm trees were seen. It has a lagoon in the center (salt) 1 mile long and half a mile wide, and not a hundred yards from the lagoon abundance of tolerable good fresh water can be had by digging two feet. Near the lagoon was found a deposit of guano.
"The island is literally covered with birds; there is, at a low estimate, 800,000. Seal and turtle were numerous on the beach, and might easily be taken. They were evidently unaccustomed to the sight of man, as they would hardly move at our approach, and the birds were so tame and plentiful that it was difficult to walk about the island without stepping on them . . . Fish, too, are plentiful."
In 1859 Lieutenant J. M. Brooke visited Laysan in the ship Fenimore Cooper, and drew a map of the island, on which two palm trees are marked on the east shore of the lagoon. The map now is preserved in the Territorial Survey Office in Honolulu. Later the same year Captain N.C. Brooks visited Laysan in the barque Gambia. He gives brief notes concerning the island, stating that it "is covered with a luxuriant growth of shrubs," and that "there are five palm trees on the island, and I collected 25 varieties of plants, some of them splendid flowering shrubs .. "
On March 29, 1890, Laysan was leased by the Hawaiian Kingdom for a period of twenty years to the North Pacific Phosphate and Fertilizer Company. The period of active guano digging lasted from 1892 to 1904. During this time numerous vessels visited Laysan. The Hawaiian schooner Liholiho made regular trips during 1892-93; the American barque Irmgard, in 1893; the American barque Planter, in 1894 and again in 1898; the American schooner Robert Lewers, in 1894; the Hawaiian schooner Ka Moi, in 1895; the American barque C.D. Bryant, in 1895 and 1897; the German barque H. Hackfeld in 1896; the Hawaiian schooner Norma, in 1896 and 1899; the Hawaiian schooner Waialeale, in 1898; the American barque McNear, in 1899, and others, made the hazardous run up through poorly charted reefs, to carry away loads of guano, or to take provisions to the little colony of guano diggers. Not all vessels survived the trips. The wooden barque Ceylon was wrecked on Laysan in July, 1902.
On May 1, 1904, the schooner Robert Lewers made a last trip to Laysan for the final cargo of guano for Hackfeld and Company, which firm gave up the lease shortly after this. The manager of the guano digging, Max Schlemmer, continued to live on the island until November, 1915.
About 1903 Captain Schlemmer introduced rabbits to Laysan, partly, it is said, to augment his food supply, and partly, according to Professor Home Dill, to start a rabbit canning business. The first stock included Belgian hares and large white domestic English rabbits. The result of this cross produced a breed which would have delighted the heart of a geneticist. At all events, they bred prolifically, for within six years the island was overrun with them. They ate off much of the green vegetation. They lived anywhere and everywhere, under bushes, in holes with the shearwaters and petrels, and in burrows of their own.
Domestic Guinea pigs also were introduced by Captain Schleimmer, but although they bred well, their destructiveness was as nothing compared with the rabbits. Conditions became much worse on Laysan than those described on Lisianski. Literally every green leaf on the island was devoured, except the tobacco patch. Without vegetation to hold the sand and to afford shelter for the birds the island quickly became an almost uninhabitable desert, and the great population of birds were threatened with extinction.
On top of all this came the feather collectors, parties of Japanese who slaughtered great numbers of Laysan albatross and other birds for their plumage, with which to trim hats. Lovers of bird life in Hawaii complained to Washington, and in February 3, 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt, by executive order, set aside all of the islands from Kure to Nihoa, with the exception of Midway, as the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation, a sanctuary within which it is unlawful to kill or molest the birds. Thus, when a party of Japanese poachers landed on Laysan and Lisianski in the spring of 1909, they were promptly arrested by the revenue cutter Thetis and taken to Honolulu for trial.
In 1911 a scientific party from Iowa State College visited Laysan to study the bird life and gather material for what has been made a splendid habitat group of sea birds. The party consisted of Professor Homer R. Dill, H .C. Young, C.J. Albrecht, photographer, and C.A. Corwin, artist, who spent 42 days on the island, and William Alanson Bryan, who joined the party for six days. The Thetis took the party to Laysan on April 24 and called for it again June 5.
Professor Bryan, at the time of his previous visit to Laysan in 1902, had estimated the bird population as close to ten million. In 1911 his estimate was about a tenth that much. This was born out by the actual bird census made by the Iowa party. They found the number to be 1,016,224, by species as follows: sooty terns, 333,900; grey backed terns, 50,000; noddy terns, 5,500; Hawaiian terns, 3,000; Bonin Island petrels, 1,000; Sooty petrels, 3; red-tailed tropic birds, 300; blue-faced boobies, 65; red-footed boobies, 125; Christmas Island shearwaters, 75,000; wedge-tailed shearwaters, 100,000; frigate or man-o'-war birds, 12,500; Laysan teal, 6; Laysan flightless rails, 2,000; wandering tattlers, a very few; bristle-thighed curlew, 250; Pacific golden plover, 2,000; turn-stones, 2,500; Laysan honey eaters, 300; Laysan finches, 2,700; and a few miller birds. (These do not add up to the total given.)
Various other scientific expeditions visited Laysan. The first of these was Henry Palmer's visit in June, 1891, collecting birds for the Hon. Walter Rothschild of Tring, England. This collecting trip formed the basis of the first volume of Rothschild's Avifauna of Laysan and the neighbouring islands, published in London in 1893. George C. Munro, of Honolulu, was Palmer's assistant, and he has penned an interesting account of his ten days observations on the island in "Myriad-nested Laysan", Asia for October, 1930, as well as numerous notes in issues of the Elepaio, official organ of the Honolulu Audubon Society.
The next scientific visit was that of Dr. H. H. Schauinsland, in 1896. He collected many interesting specimens, most of which were worked upon by German scientists. He described his visit in an entertaining little book, "Drei Monate auf einer Koralleninsel", published in Bremen in 1899.
The U.S. Fish Commission's ship Albatross visited Laysan in 1902, and a very complete record of the bird life is presented by Dr. Walter K. Fisher, in the Fish Commission Bulletin for 1903.
Carl Elschner presents observations in 1915, especially analysis of the salinity of the lagoon, which he found to be 9.1% chlorides of sodium and potassium.
The Tanager Expedition parties spent more than a month on Laysan during the spring of 1923. This expedition was sponsored jointly by the U.S. Biological Survey, the Navy Department, and B. P. Bishop Museum. One of its main objects was to kill off the remaining rabbits, which was done. The scientists found that the island had been transformed into a desert of sand. Only four species of plants remained of the 26 species previously reported. A report on the vegetation in Bishop Museum Bulletin 81, also summarises the earliest notes made by C. Isenbeck, physician on the Moller in 1828, and later accounts.
Fish have been reported as extremely abundant about Laysan, Crawfish and other forms of marine life also abound along the reef. Large turtles, formerly common along the beaches, still visit the island occasionally to lay eggs and sun themselves. This was the type locality for the native Hawaiian seal, Monachus schauinslandi, now rare. Max Schlemmer reported killing seven during fifteen years residence on the island.
Of insects, the species which breed in dead birds are especially abundant. These include blow flies, ants, and dermestid beetles, which must have been exceedingly abundant at the time that hundreds of thousands of birds carcasses were thrown out on the sands to rot. They were reported as very troublesome in 1911, and they came back in numbers in the packages of specimens collected by the Tanager Expedition.
Now that the enemies of the island are no more, and that new plants have been set out to take the places of those which became extinct, the island is beginning to "comeback". A scientific party, return on Templeton Croker's yacht Zaca, in December, 1936, reported that conditions, while not yet back to pre-poacher and pre-rabbit optimum, were greatly improved. So we have hopes that, after many misadventures, Laysan once more may become a "Paradise Isle of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation."
Coral rock reef-line on Laysan Island
Monk seal on the beach at Laysan Island
On the beach at Laysan Island
The reef at Laysan Island
The above photographs are courtesy of NOAA.
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