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Rose Atoll



Rose Atoll is the easternmost of the Samoan islands. It is located 78 nautical miles eastward of the island of Tau, and 872 miles south of the equator.

It consists of a squarish ring of marine deposit, the surface of which is a pink coralline algae known as lithothamnium, surrounding a lagoon with depths up to about 50 feet. The square, which is about 1.1/4 nautical miles on a side, is set obliquely so that the longest axis, about 1.7/8 miles, is almost east and west. Just west of the north point there is a narrow entrance into the lagoon, with depths of six feet or more, so that whale boats or small launches can enter. This passage is partly blocked on the inside by coral heads, but it is clear on the east side, close to Sand Islet.

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On the east rim of the atoll there are two tiny dots of land. Comparison of maps drawn during the past century shows that these have changed in size and shape. At present Sand Islet, on the north, is a crescent-shaped ridge of bare sand and coral, about 200 yards long by 50 yards wide. Rose Islet, to the south, is oval, about 350 yards north and south, by 250 yards wide. Its southern half is largely covered by a continuous pure stand of buka trees (Pisonia grandis). The northern half is flat, covered with broken chunks of reef material and shells with scattered herbs of Boerhaavia and Portulaca. In 1938 there were about twenty coconut palms, eight large and a dozen small, which had been planted.   

There is a fair anchorage on the north side, near the entrance, in 6 fathoms, safe as long as the S.E. trade winds blow. The condition of the vegetation suggests that the rainfall is moderately heavy, although there is no fresh water on the island.

All that can be seen from a distance are the tops of the buka trees, looking like a rounded loaf of bread on the horizon.

Everywhere could be seen great numbers of birds; wideawake terns, boobies, frigates, a few white terns, wandering tattlers, and even a few reef herons, one blue and one white. Lizards and native rats are the only four-legged animals. There are the usual hermit crabs, and fishes and other marine life abound in the lagoon and off the reef.

The surface of the reef is nearly flat, and it is scarcely awash at low tide. Hundreds of boulders are scattered over its surface. Dr. Alfred G. Mayor, who visited the atoll in June, 1920, thinks that these indicate that the reef was laid down at a time when the sea stood about ten feet higher, since eroded away; but other geologists do not all agree. The grove of Pisonia trees grows on raised reef rock or coquina, reaching a height of about eleven feet above sea level. Beneath the trees the upper soil is rich in humus from fallen leaves and rotten branches, with considerable phosphate from the droppings of sea birds.

Rose Atoll was discovered by Louis de Freycinet on October 21, 1819, on his voyage around the world in the Uranie and Physicienne. He named it for his wife, who made the voyage with him. In his journal he describes the appearance of the island and gives a chart, the deficiencies of which are readily explained by the fact that he did not come closer than a mile and a half.

Otto von Kotzebue made the next recorded observations, having passed the island in 1824. Not knowing of its prior discovery, he named it Kordinkoff Island, in honour of his first lieutenant.

Dumont D'Urville passed it on September 23, 1838, in the corvette l'Astrolabe. He described it as a heap of sand covered with a bouquet of green, very fresh and pleasant. He estimated the circumference of the reef as between six and seven miles, and noted the break in the northwest curve of the reef.

The first recorded landing on Rose Islet was made by the U.S. Exploring Expedition, under Commodore Charles Wilkes, October 7, 1839. Part of a day was spent in making a survey and observing the geology and natural history. Even then there were but three kinds of plants.

About twenty-five years later, Captain Rantzau, making explorations for German interests, made several expeditions to Rose Atoll, on one of which he took his little schooner through the shallow entrance and anchored in the lagoon. He produced a chart of the atoll and his observations are given by Eduard Graeffe in a German article on Samoa, published in 1873.

In January, 1920, Commander W.J. Terhune, then naval governor of American Samoa, visited Rose Atoll and erected a concrete monument with inscription: "Rose Island, American Samoa, Trespassing prohibited, Warren J. Terhune, Governor, Jan. 10, 1920." He revisited the atoll in June, 1920, planting the first of the coconut palms. Periodic visits are paid by American naval vessels.

Accounts of Rose Atoll are to be found in Carnegie Institution of Washington Publications 340 and 341, 1924, written by Dr. Myor, Dr. William A. Setchell and others; and in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society for 1921, volume LX, pages 62-70.

Rose Atoll was made a Naval defense area by Executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated February 14, 1941. Foreign planes and surface craft are prohibited from visiting the atoll.

It may be questionable whether the lagoon is sufficiently large to serve the interests of trans-Pacific aviation, but in any event, the lagoon would serve as an emergency landing place, and the dots of land would provide another observation spot for America's far-flung interests in the Pacific.

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Jane Resture
 (E-mail: -- Rev. 4th March 2004)