Humans and Humanity on Kanton Island

This is blog entry posted from the field during the 2012 Phoenix Islands Marine Protected Area (PIPA) Expedition. The Phoenix Islands are an isolated island chain more than 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. They are part of the island nation of Kiribati, which partnered with the New England Aquarium and Conservation International to create PIPA in 2008. Today it is one of the world's largest marine protected areas and a UNESCO world heritage site. This voyage is part of a regular series of scientific expeditions to investigate coral health and study ecosystems and biodiversity

These images were sent in by expedition photographer Keith Ellenbogen at the expedition's first dive site Kanton Island. The accompanying text was written by Randi Rotjan.

If you're rubbing your eyes and staring at the screen to make sure that yes, there is a paved sidewalk on Kanton, you're not crazy. Indeed, there is quite a bit of manmade structure reflecting it's myriad uses. In addition for being a shipwreck magnet, it has a long history of science, military, and aviation. In 1937, astronomers and the U.S. Navy used the island to observe a solar eclipse (a resulting story was published in National Geographic). Pan Am built a runway on Kanton (!!) and used Kanton as a re-fueling spot to cross the Pacific. Kanton was also a strategic link for the U.S. military between 1938 and 1941. Today, all such uses are abandoned, but the island still contains many of the (now rusting) structures. 


There are now 23 people on Kanton; transient caretakers from Kiribati who rotate in 2-5 year shifts on-site and who use some of the remaining structures. They rely on a government ship for re-supply, which comes  2x per year at most. There are ten schoolchildren onsite, and MA student (and Weston resident) Emily Mead led much of the charge to collect much-needed school supplies and materials, which were just delivered to the school via our expedition! You can see the students and teachers holding some of the supplies below:

 books and gifts to the children and their teacher on Kanton Island

Below are two of the caretaker residents - a married couple - who are stationed on Kanton for a while. The scientific expedition is itself important, but the human element of connecting with the Kanton caretakers is always a trip highlight, and a reminder of the reason PIPA is important: the Republic of Kiribati is full of affable, wonderful people who value their unique marine resources and who have the ability to see the importance of PIPA to their own country, and to the world. If I had a Kava bowl right now, I'd raise a shell in salute. :)

More on Kava coming soon...



  1. My father, Glen C Rogers, was a crew member on the USS Avocet when the ship was a part of the National Geographic Society - U.S. Navy Eclipse Expedition in 1937, Canton Island. The expedition was written about in the Sept 1937 National Geographic Magazine, of which I have a copy. This expedition was one of the highlights of his life. The ship also participated in the search for Amelia Earhart.

  2. I was with the detachment of Sea Bees who built the tracking station for Project Mercury in 1960.
    Unfortunately all my pictures were lost when my foot locker never made it from the Island to the mainland. I would like to know if anyone has any pictures from that time especially of the facility itself. Please

    1. I was stationed on Canton Island from the spring of 1944 through Oct. 1945, after WWII ended. I was a part of Us Coast Guard Loran Units 211 and 94. Our small base was on the south side near the old Pan Am Hotel. I traversed around the atoll many times with the station Jeep and crossed the inlet channels frequently with our LCM, which was a workhorse used for transporting men and supplies from the south to north side. If interested please contact me at

    2. My father was stationed there at the same time, Army Air Force. George Brown Tindall. Please contact me at blairtin@me.com. I plan to visit Canton Island this year.

  3. I worked on Canton Island in 1975 supporting SAMTEC OL. Enjoyed the assigbnment.