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

Lance Milbrand
August 29, 2003
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Clipperton atoll is located in the Eastern Pacific, approximately 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) off the coast of Mexico. The atoll is named after an 18th-Century English pirate but the territory is owned by France.

The atoll is totally enclosed and slightly over six feet (nearly two meters) above sea level. The water in the center of the atoll is undrinkable and holds only pond weed and biting isopods (a type of small crustacean).

There is one large volcanic rock and several coconut tree palm groves. Imagine a very thin donut that takes about seven hours to walk around the exterior perimeter.

The atoll is uninhabited, except for about one million seabirds and five million land crabs. Clipperton is the birthplace of tropical storms and hurricanes and the location that I will be calling home.

I live in San Diego, California with my wife Jeanne and I work as a natural history cameraman (a person who video tapes animal behaviors,) but more recently have been shooting people and news stories.

I had never attempted extreme survival and I needed to research camping, boating, communications, and camera supplies, basically purchasing everything that I thought that I would need for my expedition.

My National Geographic Society Expeditions Council grant was submitted and approved. Working with the Expeditions Council is a very important step in building a lasting relationship with National Geographic Society. Their award will give my work extra meaning because I will be working on a video for Ultimate Explorer and a new map for National Geographic Maps.

The remainder of my project will be handled by National Geographic Explorer Television. My plan involves me video taping my own isolation on the atoll (46 days), but Explorer also wants to send a second cameraperson for a portion of my trip (the very beginning and the very end, about ten days).

I asked for a person who has experience in driving a skiff and working on the ocean. Erin Harvey is not one of these people but he has worked for National Geographic before. The difficult side is that the ocean can kill someone who is not experienced. I asked Erin to come down to San Diego and practice with the skiff as much as possible before we go. Better to be prepared than dead.

My French visa was rejected. (Iraq war politics) My programs producer, Maya Laurinaitis, called Los Angeles, Tahiti, and wrote letters in French. After many tense communications, my visa was approved.

March 31, Monday—Loading the Boat: I must admit the first time I saw the boat and the fish were being unloaded, my emotions ran high. All of my time and money and the effort that went into actually planning the project and making it happen were about to pay off.

I was excited but at the same time, slightly afraid of not returning, because I knew that I was about to travel to one of the most difficult and unforgiving environments in the world. Walking on the dock this afternoon was a moment of solemn realization. Once we get there and after Erin leaves, I will be totally alone.

Jeanne made a great dinner. Tomorrow we fly into Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to meet the boat.

April 7, Monday—We Made It: We dropped the hook at Clipperton at 3:15 a.m. and everyone was fishing by 3:30. I cast the iron with an old boat rod and had a few hits but no strike. The fishing action started to get heavy with 100-plus-pound fish getting landed.

Come daybreak, the atoll was about three miles (five kilometers) away and had rough water. When we moved the boat closer, I could see the swell was really up with offshore winds.

We circled the atoll a few times and saw that only one landing area was open. This spot was near the old ammunitions dump, my second choice for landings because I want my camp to be by the main grove. The area also had some wreckage on the shoreline that I could not understand: another big boxy vehicle, and an upside down car.

I tried calling Maya twice on my phone but got only a few words in before we lost connection. Frank told everyone at dinner that he will try to put people ashore at 8 in the morning, unless the fish are biting. The boat would be fishing all night and the best bites usually happen between 3 and dawn. Strange he did not mention Lance and Erin and their supplies?

April 9, Wednesday, Day 1 on the Atoll: 7:51 a.m. Guys are fishing, the weather looks good, and we are still waiting for the go-ahead from Frank.

We made it ashore about 11:30— it took us less than one hour to unload supplies and go up the beach. Other passengers were allowed to go ashore. I ran the skiff through the reef, ; no problem. Erin and I walked many loads of gear north to the main grove. I also wore heavy backpacks and went back for more gear.

I picked a temporary spot to stage gear on a concrete pad in the main palm grove. A lot of gear was left behind or staged along the way. We both set up our tents and I had some difficulty driving in the tent stakes because the ground was harder than I had imagined. My plan was to use my tent for sleeping and, when Erin left, use his tent for all the video gear. In essence, his tent would become my garage.

The entire afternoon was spent moving gear by hand, cart, and on our backs. I also tried moving gear by kayak in the lagoon with good results. The lagoon water was a pea-soup-green color, possibly an algae bloom because the weather was certainly hot. We ate a badly mixed dinner of freeze-dried food and I went back alone in the dark for another load of gear.

The moonlight was enough to walk by. The tide was high and the skiff was being filled with seawater. I am glad to have checked on the skiff because we did not need it to drift away. I pulled it up the coral embankment as far as I could. We both slept out in the open, on top of the concrete pad in our cots.

April 10, Thursday, Day 2: Walking over sharp corals the day before, wearing scuba diving booties, caused my feet to hurt. I could not sleep on my cot and when I sat up to get out of bed, my cot folded in two, breaking at a critical weight-bearing point. My knee was really sore.

We woke up to a strong wind, a real sunrise, and we were in the company of over 5,000 booby. Despite all the difficulties, it was breathtakingly beautiful.

I was crapped on by a passing bird and thought to myself that it was OK because I made it to the atoll.

We shot scenes with several cameras around the grove and then went down to the skiff and set up for diving. By this time, it was high noon and really hot. I lay down in the surf to cool off and mistakenly forgot to take off the wireless microphone. I was only in the water for a few seconds with the microphone attached under my wetsuit, but that was enough to kill the instrument.

Both of Erin's cameras were not working.

Man it was hot, but we had a successful launch through the reef. We made it over past the rock and I went diving in what I would call surge conditions. Unspectacular, but all my gear worked.

Erin then dove. We returned, and we had a successful landing. I carried more gear and Erin pushed gear north in the cart. Each trip from the landing to the camp site took 45 minutes to walk, each way. There are about ten more loads to go.

April 11, Friday, Day 3: We awoke to another great bird natural history morning at camp. The birds are paired, very busy nest-building, and in great numbers. It appears they have established very strict territories and if one bird wanders in the area of another's, loud and violent fights ensue.

We ate cereal with powdered milk and it tasted good to me. I attempted to build a water-catcher, "rain water," with a tarp angled against an old cistern. I feel that if I connect the tarp to the shed, which is really a dilapidated four-post structure with a heavy old water carrier on the top, maybe I would have some luck collecting water. But to catch the water, I would need to angle the tarp by holding it and hopefully the water would trickle into the bucket.

We used our VHF radio and phoned ahead, then caught up with the Royal Polaris skiff near 11 a.m. We really wanted to use a bigger skiff and have someone watching out for us on the surface because the weather can change so quickly here.

We were off and Ryan from the Royal Polaris was our skiff driver. Soon after we left the mother boat, I jumped in with a school of dolphin. Ryan kept them close by, driving the skiff in a tight circle around me. For some strange reason, some dolphins are attracted to moving boats, just like some dogs like to chase cars.

I swam down 40 or 50 feet (12 or 15 meters) and captured some nice group shots of the marine mammals. Erin was happy to snorkel with dolphin but I was jazzed when silky sharks appeared.

Five sharks circled us as rainbow runners scraped off parasites from their sides. Sometimes the sharks were covered in large silver fish. It is like a moving cloud of life that shines and sparkles, but has teeth. I was surprised the sharks could swim in the same schools as the dolphin and no one seemed to mind.

After our diving, Ryan and a boat passenger helped me move my skiff over to the lagoon. Erin leaves tomorrow and I did not want my skiff to drift away from large surf or be stolen by a passing boat.

Next: Alone on a Desert Island >>

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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