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Island Castaway Describes His Self-Imposed Exile

Emily Murphy
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
August 29, 2003
 
National Geographic Ultimate Explorer:
Island Castaway
premieres Sunday, August 31, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on
MSNBC.


View a Clipperton Island photo gallery and read Lance Milbrand's island journal.

In 1994, Lance Milbrand traveled to Clipperton Island, a coral atoll in the Eastern Pacific 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) off the coast of Acapulco, Mexico, on a scientific expedition. Film equipment failure and heatstroke prevented him from shooting a planned documentary about the island.

Milbrand returned to the remote island in April of 2003 to shoot his film, funded in part with a grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council. For 41 days, he lived on the island among thousands of bright orange crabs and millions of seabirds, mapping the atoll for National Geographic Maps and shooting documentary footage. With the exception of a cameraman who stayed briefly at the beginning and end of his trip, Milbrand was the only human living on the island.

National Geographic News recently spoke with Milbrand about his new film on Clipperton, Island Castaway.


What was your daily experience like on Clipperton?

Each day I would wake up in the company of about 5,000 birds. Boobies surrounded my camp. I mean, they were everywhere. They would talk amongst themselves and argue and do what boobies do best—which is squawk a lot.

So I would make breakfast and decide what I was going to do next in terms of filming. It really depended upon the weather. If it looked like it was going to rain, then I would try and stay close to base camp and work in the palm grove. If it looked sunny, I would get in the skiff and travel across the lagoon and work a different part of the island.

My trip in '94 gave me a good idea of what I could expect to shoot as far as the video goes. So I had to plan out where the best locations were for the natural history as well as human history on the island. I also had another job and that was mapping the atoll. So I walked around with a GPS and plotted a new map.

The first few weeks I was there, it was just unbelievably hot. I had blisters on [my] lips and a rash across my chest. I had a thermometer. It was 110° [Fahrenheit/43° Celcius] day after day. I almost ran out of water. I brought a lot, but I underestimated the amount that I needed. I estimated a gallon and a half [5.7 liters] a day. I think you could bring three gallons [11.3 liters] a day and be a lot safer. But it weighs 8.3 pounds per gallon [one kilogram per liter] so that is a lot of weight to carry on shore. Water is really the key to survival. I mean, it is…more valuable than gold, especially on Clipperton.

Milbrand holds a tin box that contains dozens of small plastic toys he collected on the shores of Clipperton. There are green army men, plastic horses, a plastic Ronald McDonald cookie cutter, and cowboys and Indians. They lack the sheen of most plastic toys because they have been covered in guano for an unknown period of time.

Where did these toys come from?

They wash up along the whole island. What is really fascinating is birds have come along and picked these things up. They put them in their nests and use them like a sexual attractant. I mean, most bird nests have one army man and maybe even a brontosaurus … . Brown booby are used to building things with drab-looking feathers and sticks … and now they've found this color. Maybe it attracts the opposite sex? …

Where did all of these things come from? Who lost them? Why did they end up at Clipperton? It's like the island of lost toys … . So I have some treasures from the "Island of Lost Toys." This guy [Milbrand holds up a toy] looks really old: 1950s Hornet Man. What brings this old horse 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) from shore? There were … thousands of pairs of … women's high-heeled shoes. A lot of monofilament line. These toys tell a story. It is like a moment lost in time. They are just treasures … . I have about 100 pounds [45 kilograms] of strange artifacts that I collected. Big dolls. Chess pieces. I think that the most common toy that I found were plastic jeeps. Big jeeps. Lots of kids leave those on the beach.

Is there much wildlife on the atoll?

There [are] a couple of big wildlife circles. The sea provides food to just about everything. The birds go out, and they feed on the small fish. They bring these fish back to feed their young birds. I think the dominant form of life on the atoll is a land crab. They are bright orange. It is really a contrast—this bright orange crab and the white sand of the coral. The crabs and the birds have this historic relationship. But what has happened recently, there have been some new shipwrecks on the island and there is quite an infestation of rats. My personal view is the rats have become the apex predator. They are feeding on the crabs and the baby birds. So that is an introduced species that can have an effect in the long run.

Did you encounter the rats while you were on Clipperton?

I lived with rats when I was on the island. They visited my camp every night. I had to bring my trash way down the beach. [There was] nothing you could really do. There was so many of them. They would wake me up at night with their screeching. In the beginning, I slept outside on a cot. But then, I thought to myself, "Well, I have like 35 days to go. What if a rat bit me? And the boat is gone … " So then I slept in my tent the rest of the trip because I really couldn't take a chance like that. I mean, your arm could be laying over on the ground and [Milbrand makes rat noises] and this guy bites you and what would happen? I don't know. You'd have to get rescued. I couldn't jeopardize the project like that.

There's a lighthouse on Clipperton, but the atoll hasn't been occupied for close to a century, correct?

The lighthouse … was built by a Mexican garrison in about 1906. Clipperton has a really interesting story. It's off the coast of Mexico. It was named after an English pirate, but France owns the territory. Mexico has always claimed the atoll. For some reason, the French want to claim it because it is near Tahiti, which is about 2,400 miles (3,900 kilometers) away. But who knows why the French want the atoll?

The Mexicans erected a lighthouse to claim the island as their own in 1906 … . They operated the lighthouse until 1917. The really interesting part of the story is that the lighthouse that they put on top of the rock was made in Paris. So the Mexicans erected a French lighthouse on an island that they are trying to claim. I just found that very amusing, and ironic. The lighthouse would have required daily maintenance: kerosene and wick replacement. Long ago it fell off the top of the rock, but I found it in a crack. I gathered a rope and climbed down to see it. This was a great moment of discovery. I found this [inscription], but it was all covered in bird poop. So I had to use a bird bone and some water and I had to scrape it off. I have what is written on there. I don't know how to speak French worth a darn, but it says, Sac te de establissements Henri Lepaute Paris. And the irony is huge. France still owns the island.

Is Clipperton inhabited?

Clipperton is uninhabited by people. It's so harsh with the extreme heat and then the scarcity of rain and then huge, huge amounts of rain and tropical storms that people in the general sense don't ever go there to live. No one has lived there since 1917 as far as I know.

How many people visit Clipperton?

Not very many … because it is really the birthplace of hurricanes in the Eastern Pacific. It is really hot, and it is rough weather to get there. You can't launch a boat through the surf, and there is no anchorage because the atoll is in the shape of a circle. I would say that the only people who go there are fishermen for yellow fin tuna. That is a big industry, not only for the canneries but also sport fisherman from San Diego who drive their long range sportfishing boats all the way down there. Shark long-liner fishermen also come there as well from Mexico, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

You tried using a kite during filmmaking. How did that work out?

I had a special kite with a wireless video camera. The kite that I had was a French box kite. It was about five feet [1.5 meters] wide and it had a really long tail. It's really hard to go to a kite store and find a kite that can accept additional weight to fly. So I had to adapt something myself by making a smaller battery for the wireless camera. Then I had a transmitter on the ground. It would send a signal from the air down to the transmitter to the video deck. I needed a lot of wind to lift this thing because it made my kite quite a bit heavier. It was typically very windy there. But it was hard to get the kite in the air. I only had so much time. There [were] other things to do. So when I did decide to fly the kite, I had mixed results. Sometimes it went up and then it crashed. But then I got it up, and I got it too high. Maybe the shot didn't make it in the film because I was so high. So I learned what to do next time. I wished I had more time to fly the kite. When I did have time, the wind wasn't right.

You left the island earlier than expected, but that may have saved your life.

I had to get permission from the French Embassy in Los Angeles and get a visa to go [to Clipperton]. So I was allowed on the island. At the end of my project, the French Navy showed up in a huge frigate ship about 400 feet (122 meters) long. The French military landed in this big helicopter and came out. I had a big, thick beard. They said, "You must be Lance." And I go, "How did you know?" They checked with the visa people. They were making a documentary for a French television company.

The boat that was supposed to take me home didn't have a fishing permit, so the French military said they had to leave right away. I had a visa, but I had no choice. I had to leave right away. That worked out well because I had to get my gear off the island that same day the French came ashore. If I would have waited … I would have been hit by the first big tropical depression of the season, Andrea. This big storm came right towards Clipperton. It was about 200 miles (320 kilometers) across [with] 55-knot winds. It went just right over the top of the atoll. The day it hit the atoll was the day I was supposed to leave. So it was really good that the French said, "Well, you can stay, but the boat has to go." It made me have to leave earlier. If that wouldn't have happened, I might not be sitting here.

How would you have survived something like that?

It would have been really difficult. A big strong wind like that can really cause some damage with the coconut trees—not to mention the wildlife.

What was your plan to get help in an emergency?

I did have a special satellite phone that I had to line up with a compass [to a] satellite over the Atlantic, not the Pacific. The Atlantic signal was a bit stronger. It had to be in clear weather and with no obstructions. I had to be in the open. I called into headquarters every couple days to get some direction from Maya Laurinaitis, the show's co-producer.

Would you like to go back to Clipperton?

I could always go back to Clipperton. There is more to do there, stories still left untold. It is just such a great personal challenge to walk around and bring something home in the can and share it with people. That was one of my main goals—to share this really remote place somewhere where most people won't go and hopefully preserve this location as it is for the future.
 

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