Clipperton Journal: The Daily Record of Life on a Pacific Atoll, Part 5

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May 18, Sunday, Day 40: I woke up to gloomy skies. We talked with the RR and Captain Jeff. He asked us to start moving gear over to the LST site to help expedite the process. We loaded the skiff with an awful lot of stuff.

We moved that gear across to the LST and on the way back stopped at the small islands off the rock so that I could finish my GPS survey. The inner, outer and all islands inside the lagoon have GPS wave points. I feel good about that! We came back to pack some more. We made it back over to the LST by 5:20 p.m.

I talked on the radio with Captain Jeff and we planned on camping over at the LST the following night. Hopefully the weather pattern will remain the same and we will be able to get the gear off Tuesday morning. Frank LoPresti from the RP is back. Frank tells me the fishing is slow …

Erin and I are supposed to shoot a video tomorrow morning with Lisa Ling at 6:00 a.m. The location is supposed to be high and have a background and I thought the best place to go would be the flag pole, about a five-minute walk south of our base camp. Hopefully we will be able to figure out the gear and it wont be raining in the morning.

May 19, Monday, Day 41: I am writing Monday's log a day late because so much activity happened before the evening and I forgot to write.

My day started at 5:00 a.m. when Erin and I moved the satellite phone, video phone, generator and camera over to the old flag pole for a scheduled video call at 6:00 A.M. a.m. Erin had woken up even earlier and I met him at the flag pole hill.

At 6:00 we had technical problems but kept working through until we reached Geographic headquarters at 7:00 A.M. a.m. I called in and someone answered "chicken little.". It was John Goodman, Executive Producer at Nat. Geo. and he was pulling my leg. It made for a good laugh because I thought we may have had a wrong number.

By 7:00 we had everything working fine but they had technical problems. John told us to call back in ninety 90 minutes. We called back and they must have still been out to lunch. One of their techs told us they were not ready and I was told to call back in another hour. The people back at headquarters had no idea that we are on a gas generator that powers the video phone, or that the storms come in and sock us in, or that in a few days we had to pack to leave the atoll.

We finally connected and I talked with Lisa. She asked what is was like being on the atoll the first ten days and I told her hot, and I hoped to not run out of water, etc. The call and my answers were brief. I think they only wanted to use the audio portion of the call because I looked so hairy and sun burnt.

I thought we would have to call them back and do a second interview and they said no, call back on Wednesday. Meanwhile, a big grey gray military helicopter buzzed us low and overhead a few times while I was on the phone. Our short phone call with headquarters took us six hours of time to complete. I used the VHF to call Captain Jeff and the RR to see how things were going.

Jeff told me we needed to pack and be off the atoll now, because the French Navy boarded the RR and told them they had to leave because they did not have a fishing permit.

Erin and I had planned to shoot additional scenes but our conversation with Captain Jeff made us scramble to get out and over to the other side with all the gear.

Yesterday we moved three loads and I estimate we have three more loads to move. Suddenly the military helicopter landed just north of the radar pole. We walked over and Erin had his PD 150 camera. We watched as a French military man picked up the flying man flag from the ground and held it into the air for the helicopter to see. It was funny!

We cautiously walked forward and introduced ourselves to the smiling man on top of the guano mound. His name was Stephan and he spoke better- than- average English which was lucky for us. Stephan was a French journalist and much to my surprise knew my name. He said, "You must be Lance?" Stephan knew that I was there because he had to check in with the French Visa people in Los Angeles.

Other people walked towards us carrying video gear and we traded interviews for our cameras. The military was there to reclaim the atoll. They wanted to fix the pyramid because it had a crack from someone kicking it in and it needed painting to remove graffiti. They also decided to brace up the flag pole and add a plaque with their frigate ship's name. It was a beautiful golden plaque with a woman holding an armful of wheat.

The video crew told us they were scouting a location for a 2004-2005 five month stay and documentary. I met some of the people involved in the big event. One man's name was Jean-Claude and he has traveled alone before, working on a documentary in Antarctica. We instantly bonded because we had in common extreme locations, isolation and loneliness.

Another man named Dennis spoke pretty good English. In November 2004 they and six or seven other specialists will be staying at or very near my campsite. They walked over to our camp and we did our best to remove our trash and restore the land. We discussed wind and how I collected rain. They told me that they were going to bring in ten tons of gear.

We had to keep moving our equipment over to the LST site so Erin and I departed and brought over three loads in the skiff. It was very slow going over because of the weight in the boat but we were lucky because the wind and rains we had in the morning turned into overcast skies and a calm glassy lagoon.

The RR guys were great, moving our gear over the guano and their waiting skiffs. We had everything off by 5:30 P.M.p.m. and I drove the skiff off the atoll as the sun was ready to set.

The sky at 6:15 was the most beautiful orange color and I was on the RR with twenty 20 or so strangers. It was as odd as meeting the French people and having them walk through my camp, but at least here I was speaking English and around mostly happy people and comfortable living conditions.

Once Erin and I stowed our gear, I took a shower and sat down to a nice yellowfin tuna dinner and got to know some of the passengers. Nice group of people but most wanted to catch more fish.

The French military would not allow them to fish the entire day because the boat lacked permits. Just the same, my observations are when it is raining at the atoll, fewer fish are caught .

We had another great meal and it was announced by French military that we could stay; only we needed to go over to their ship tomorrow morning to get permit papers. I went to my stateroom to sleep after I ate my second helping of cheesecake. Erin and I shared a room that was in the main hallway from the back deck to the galley and I was comfortable.

May 20, Tuesday, on the Red Rooster: After breakfast, Erin and I prepped our dive gear but then were in the stand by mode. Our skiff would be used to run over to get the permit papers from the French frigate.

Once our boat crew departed in our skiff to meet the French, for some reason, the French ship sped away at over ten knots. Our little skiff was no match for the speeding frigate. Finally the French ship slowed down and one of our crew boarded but then the French ship kept going. It was a big mystery. Why would this French captain tell us to come meet his ship and then speed away?

After an hour, our man and the papers were retrieved, everything was golden. Erin and I happened to be in the wheelhouse when Captain Jeff got a call from Captain Frank and another captain.

A huge tropical storm, the first of the season just developed in the Eastern Pacific. Andrea packed some 200 miles of rain, had 50- knot winds and was heading directly towards us at ten knots. Knowing Captain Frank the way I do, I could tell by his tone of voice that this was very serious.

Captain Jeff called for a meeting with all of the passengers and crew in the galley. After getting special permission to stay we had no choice but to leave. The storm was coming and we could see the solid black clouds approaching. If I could say the French giving the RR problems was a blessing, this would be the time. By loosing a day on the atoll we were forced to move our gear off the atoll a day ahead of schedule, thus making it off safely before the big storm! As my mom always says "honey, everything happens for a reason".."

During my last morning at the atoll, we had four ships, the RR, the RP, the French Frigate and a new shark long- liner that showed up during the night. Now everyone would have to leave.

The rain suddenly hit hard and we all ran inside for cover. Rain started to hit the boat horizontally and I went outside to take some shots. Fearing that I could easily be washed overboard, I then puked in the bathroom.

After years of working on the sea, lying in a bunk propped against the wall is the best place for me. Doors were slamming; I could hear things clanging as they fell off tables and slammed against walls., I felt miserable. I slept for hours, puked again, ate a bowl of soup for dinner and then went directly back to sleep.

May 22, Thursday, on the Red Rooster I've been on the boat three full days now and I definitely feel different. I feel pampered, fat and dry, no longer sun burnt and thirsty. I can remember so clearly having 30 days, 20 days, ten days and then time flew by. I wish I had the knowledge on how to shoot more natural history sequences instead of just shots. I feel like I captured a lot but I hope it is enough.

I hate to second- guess myself and my work. I sure did work hard in all aspects of the project. I feel different, somehow lucky and privileged to have lived my life. Tonight the boat will stop to catch bait, we will fish in the morning and continue to move north up the Mexican mainland. I heard that Andrea passed over Clipperton and is heading out to sea.

May 27, Tuesday, looking back: The dust settled, the plane ride was fine. My mom and dad were waiting by the gate and Jeanne was waiting over by the luggage area. We all caught up with her fifteen 15 minutes later. Erin was off to connect with a rental car. Jeanne and I drove home in her new Jeep and the traffic was bad for a Sunday night. It feels good to be home.

Jeanne looks great, my dog and cat seem to remember me and Jeanne took good care of our house. We walked the dog around the block and my legs hurt. I could develop shin splints…s I am not used to walking on a hard surface.

My eyes and skin feel better but every now and then I have a strange cough. My body feels stiff. It will almost be over tomorrow after I pick up things on the boat, then repack and send gear back to Geo. via FedEx, piece by piece.

Overview

WOW— where do I start? I first went to the atoll in 1994 and it took me nine years to return. Within that time I pitched the story to National Geographic Television in Washington D.C. four times. I am like a weed, you can't kill me and I keep coming back!

I spent 56 days away from home and 41 days on the atoll. During that time, I left no place on that ring of land unexplored. I traversed the lagoon dozens of times in my skiff and kayak, walked every tide pool and dove along the coral reefs. I experienced very different weather patterns, from 110- degree heat and an unrelenting sun to thunderstorms with lightning that lasted six hours. Sometimes I had absolutely no wind, other times the wind came with a flurry of hot air, other times the air was so cold I shivered. Clipperton has it all.

In retrospect, next time I would bring more sunshades, tarps and a water desalinator. Although a satellite phone was handy, if I had a choice, I would have left it behind.

Where does all the junk plastic come from? What can we do to prevent it from spreading?

Nothing in our world is more important than fresh drinking water. If I were on Clipperton by myself, and you gave me a choice between a 24-carat carrot gold bar or a liter of drinking water, I would take the drinking water. A person that becomes stranded or is left there like I was has to make choices. What is the best use for this water; drinking, cooking, washing clothes, or washing one's hair and body? It is a primeval feeling that is very had to explain in words and the difference between life and death.

For the people who came before me and had great hardships, I understand. For the people who follow, bring more water than you could ever possibly need. I budgeted a gallon and a half per day for my expedition. I would recommend a minimum of three gallons per day.

I am afraid of two things on the atoll, the spread of rats, which eat crab and young birds, and the threat of a marina development, which I think would be devastating to the fragile ecosystem and wildlife.

The rats will be very difficult to kill because they live everywhere and can run very quickly. The humans, well, we all know how they can manipulate the environment for their grand ideas.

One thing is for sure, no one can build this atoll better than nature has designed. If there was ever a place that should not see a concrete building with a swimming pool, a marina and an airport, Clipperton is it.

Our film is scheduled to air Sunday night, August 31st, Labor Day Weekend on MSNBC. Our map is currently being worked on by the graphic artists. Our article in geographic.com will be written in August and posted in September.

Thank You!

Lance Milbrand—Your Island Castaway

Read Lance Milbrand's island journal.
Lance Milbrand's Journal: Part One >>
Lance Milbrand's Journal: Part Two >>
Lance Milbrand's Journal: Part Three >>
Lance Milbrand's Journal: Part Four >>
Lance Milbrand's Journal: Part Five >>

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