Expedition Pursues Secrets of Clipperton Island
By Julio Godoy*
scientists are slated to arrive in early December on the tiny atoll
located 1,300 km southwest of the Mexican resort of Acapulco. Their
findings could help the world to understand climate phenomena like
El Niño, the research team's chief Jean-Louis Etienne told Tierramérica.
PARIS - To compare him to Charles Darwin or
Alexander von Humboldt might be too much. But French explorer Jean-Louis
Etienne is proposing an effort similar to these giants as he heads
to Clipperton, a tiny Pacific island 1,300 km southwest of the Mexican
resort of Acapulco.
Beginning Dec. 7, Etienne will spend four months on Clipperton with
some 40 other people from France's National Center for Scientific
Research (CNRS), among them biologists, geologists, divers, ornithologists
and computer experts. Their task is to conduct an exhaustive inventory,
a first-ever classification of the local flora and fauna -- as Darwin
did in the Galápagos Islands, and Humboldt in the Andes.
The team will also study the origins of the species recorded and
try to determine how they reached this coral atoll that covers an
area of just seven square km and has an internal freshwater lagoon.
Unique to the East Pacific, it was discovered by Fernando Magellan
in 1521, but was ultimately named after an 18th-century pirate who
used it as a hideout.
France annexed the island in 1855, but in 1897 Mexico took it over
and attempted to settle people there, unsuccessfully. A heated sovereignty
dispute ensued, until international arbitration granted France authority
over it in 1931.
Clipperton is included on the list of protected areas of the United
Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which classifies it as ''one
of the least altered island systems in the Pacific Ocean,'' and
''the fauna and flora consist of an unusual assemblage including
both Panamic (American) and Indo-Pacific forms.''
In a Tierramérica interview, Etienne noted that the coral atoll,
also known as Isla de la Pasión, ''is not virgin land.'' Four centuries
ago, he pointed out, an Asian cargo ship sank just off Mexico's
Pacific coast. ''The rats from the ship reached Clipperton and reproduced
with extraordinary facility, and today constitute a true plague''
that his team proposes to eliminate as its first task.
Tides also bring all sorts of waste to the island, and humans have
mistreated the area, even using Clipperton as a military base.
In the 1960s, France considered testing atomic bombs there, and
in the 1970s as a nuclear waste site, but both plans were scrapped
due to protests from Mexico and the United States.
Etienne suspects that drug traffickers use the island as a stopover,
utilizing a precarious landing strip that was built during the Second
According to Philippe Bouchet, a CNRS biologist on the expedition,
interest in Clipperton ''lies in the fact that its ecosystems are
very simplified, unlike those of the equatorial forests.''
''Because of the coral atoll's isolation and its extremely scarce
natural resources, species face enormous difficulties in establishing
themselves there. But once they have done so, they reproduce very
easily,'' said Bouchet.
There are some 100,000 birds of various species living on the island,
and there are many amphibians, red or tuna crabs (Pleuroncodes planipes)
and other crustaceans, and fish -- with around 115 species identified
around the island, says Etienne.
An atoll is the remnant of a sunken, extinct volcano, on which a
coral reef has formed. In the case of Clipperton Island, after the
volcano ended its active phase it began to sink, and its crater
became a lagoon, protected from the sea and from external biological
In symbiosis, the coral protects the green algae, which through
photosynthesis produce the oxygen they need. This process cannot
occur deeper than 20 meters because the not enough light reaches
Clipperton ''is a geo-chemical laboratory unique in the world,''
because the water in its lagoon lacks oxygen deeper than eight meters,
and contains high proportions of sulfuric acid, making it a ''natural
melting pot where phosphates are formed, and an ideal environment
for the emergence of new organisms,'' Etienne explained.
The 58-year-old explorer rose to fame in France for having crossed
the Arctic on foot in 1986, and for his repeated trips to the Himalayas.
The research team going to Clipperton will study the DNA -- the
genetic makeup -- of the organisms found on the atoll, and the effect
of solar radiation on its plant and animal species.
''In particular we want to see if the species that live near the
water surface have developed new mechanisms for resisting the ultraviolet
rays,'' Etienne said.
Through these studies, he believes it will also be possible to better
understand the evolution over the millennia of climate phenomena
like the warm-water currents of El Niño, which ever three to seven
years flow from the western Pacific near Australia to the coasts
of South America.
During the four months he will be on Clipperton, the explorer will
maintain an online diary, available on his website, to ''share this
experience with all the world.''
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.