Malden Island

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NASA orbital photo of Malden Island (north at top) NASA-MaldenIsland.jpg
NASA orbital photo of Malden Island (north at top)

Coordinates: 4°1′S154°56′W / 4.017°S 154.933°W / -4.017; -154.933

Geographic coordinate system Coordinate system

A geographic coordinate system is a coordinate system that enables every location on Earth to be specified by a set of numbers, letters or symbols. The coordinates are often chosen such that one of the numbers represents a vertical position and two or three of the numbers represent a horizontal position; alternatively, a geographic position may be expressed in a combined three-dimensional Cartesian vector. A common choice of coordinates is latitude, longitude and elevation. To specify a location on a plane requires a map projection.


Malden Island, sometimes called Independence Island in the nineteenth century, is a low, arid, uninhabited atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, about 39 km2 (15 sq mi) in area. It is one of the Line Islands belonging to the Republic of Kiribati. The lagoon is entirely enclosed by land, however it is connected to the sea by underground channels, and is quite salty.

Atoll Ring-shaped coral reef, generally formed over a subsiding oceanic volcano, with a central lagoon and perhaps islands around the rim

An atoll, sometimes called a coral atoll, is a ring-shaped coral reef including a coral rim that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. There may be coral islands or cays on the rim. The coral of the atoll often sits atop the rim of an extinct seamount or volcano which has eroded or subsided partially beneath the water. The lagoon forms over the volcanic crater or caldera while the higher rim remains above water or at shallow depths that permit the coral to grow and form the reefs. For the atoll to persist, continued erosion or subsidence must be at a rate slow enough to permit reef growth upward and outward to replace the lost height.

Pacific Ocean Ocean between Asia and Australia in the west, the Americas in the east and Antarctica or the Southern Ocean in the south.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest and deepest of Earth's oceanic divisions. It extends from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Southern Ocean in the south and is bounded by Asia and Australia in the west and the Americas in the east.

Line Islands Chain of eleven atolls and low coral islands in the central Pacific Ocean

The Line Islands, Teraina Islands or Equatorial Islands, is a chain of atolls and coral islands. Kingman Reef is largely submerged and Filippo Reef is shown on some maps, although its existence is doubted. The islands were formed by volcanic activity and are located in the central Pacific Ocean, south of the Hawaiian Islands. The 11 islands stretch for 2,350 kilometres in a northwest–southeast direction, making it one of the longest island chains of the world. Eight of the islands form part of Kiribati, while the remaining three are United States territories grouped with the United States Minor Outlying Islands. Only Kiritimati and Tabuaeran atolls and Teraina Island have a permanent population.

The island is chiefly notable for its mysterious prehistoric ruins, its once-extensive deposits of phosphatic guano (exploited by Australian interests from c. 1860–1927), its former use as the site of the first British H-bomb tests (Operation Grapple, 1957), and its current importance as a protected area for breeding seabirds.

Ruins Remains of human-made architecture

Ruins are the remains of human-made architecture: structures that were once intact have fallen, as time went by, into a state of partial or total disrepair, due to lack of maintenance or deliberate acts of destruction. Natural disaster, war and population decline are the most common root causes, with many structures becoming progressively derelict over time due to long-term weathering and scavenging.

Guano excrement of seabirds and bats

Guano is the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats. As a manure, guano is a highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium: nutrients essential for plant growth. Guano was also, to a lesser extent, sought for the production of gunpowder and other explosive materials. The 19th-century guano trade played a pivotal role in the development of modern input-intensive farming, but its demand began to decline after the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixing led to the production of synthetic fertilizers. The demand for guano spurred the human colonization of remote bird islands in many parts of the world. During the 20th century, guano-producing birds became an important target of conservation programs and influenced the development of environmental consciousness. Today, guano is increasingly sought after by organic farmers.

Operation Grapple British nuclear weapons tests of very-early hydrogen bombs

Operation Grapple was the name of four series of British nuclear weapons tests of early atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs carried out in 1957 and 1958 at Malden Island and Kiritimati in the Pacific Ocean as part of the British hydrogen bomb programme. Nine nuclear explosions were initiated, culminating in the United Kingdom becoming the third recognised possessor of thermonuclear weapons, and the restoration of the nuclear Special Relationship with the United States with the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement.

The island is designated as the Malden Island Wildlife Sanctuary. [1] In 2014 the Kiribati government established a 12-nautical-mile (14 mi; 22 km) fishing exclusion zone around each of the southern Line Islands (Caroline (commonly called Millennium), Flint, Vostok, Malden, and Starbuck). [2]

Caroline Island island group

Caroline Island or Caroline Atoll, is the easternmost of the uninhabited coral atolls which comprise the southern Line Islands in the central Pacific Ocean.

Flint Island island

Flint Island is an uninhabited coral island in the central Pacific Ocean, part of the Southern Line Islands under the jurisdiction of Kiribati. In 2014 the Kiribati government established a twelve-nautical-mile exclusion zone around each of the southern Line Islands.

Vostok Island island

Vostok Island, also known as Staver Island, is an uninhabited coral island in the central Pacific Ocean, part of the Line Islands belonging to Kiribati. Other names for the island include Anne Island, Bostock Island, Leavitts Island, Reaper Island, Wostock Island or Wostok Island. The island was first sighted in 1820 by the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, who named the island for his ship Vostok.


Boat Landing on Malden Island with ruins of old settlement Malden AKK LandingPoint.jpg
Boat Landing on Malden Island with ruins of old settlement

Malden Island is located 242 nautical miles (278 mi; 448 km) south of the equator, 1,530 nautical miles (1,761 mi; 2,834 km) south of Honolulu, Hawaii, and more than 4,000 nautical miles (7,000 km) west of the coast of South America. The nearest land is uninhabited Starbuck Island, 110 nautical miles (204 km; 127 mi) to the southwest. The closest inhabited place is Tongareva (Penrhyn Island), 243 nautical miles (450 km; 280 mi) to the southwest. The nearest airport is on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), 365 nautical miles (676 km; 420 mi) to the northwest. Other nearby islands (all uninhabited) include Jarvis Island, 373 nautical miles (691 km; 429 mi) to the northwest, Vostok Island, 385 nautical miles (713 km; 443 mi) to the south-southeast, and Caroline (Millennium) Island, 460 nautical miles (852 km; 529 mi) to the southeast.

South America A continent in the Western Hemisphere, and mostly in the Southern Hemisphere

South America is a continent in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. It may also be considered a subcontinent of the Americas, which is how it is viewed in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions of the Americas. The reference to South America instead of other regions has increased in the last decades due to changing geopolitical dynamics.

Starbuck Island coral atoll in the Central Line Islands of Kiribati

Starbuck Island is an uninhabited coral island in the central Pacific, and is part of the Central Line Islands of Kiribati. Former names include "Barren Island", "Coral Queen Island", "Hero Island", "Low Island", and "Starve Island".

Kiritimati Atoll in Line Islands, Kiribati

Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, is a Pacific Ocean raised coral atoll in the northern Line Islands. It is part of the Republic of Kiribati.

The island has roughly the shape of an equilateral triangle, with 8 km (5 mi) on a side, aligned with the southwest side running northwest to southeast. The west and south corners are slightly truncated, shortening the north, east and southwest coasts to about 7 km (4 mi), and adding shorter west and south coasts about 1 to 2 km (½–1 mi) in length. A large, mostly shallow, irregularly shaped lagoon, containing a number of small islets, fills the east central part of the island. The lagoon is entirely enclosed by land, but only by relatively narrow strips along its north and east sides. It is connected to the sea by underground channels, and is quite salty. Most of the land area of the island lies to the south and west of the lagoon. The total area of the island is about 39.3 square kilometres (15 sq mi).

Lagoon A shallow body of water separated from a larger body of water by barrier islands or reefs

A lagoon is a shallow body of water separated from a larger body of water by barrier islands or reefs. Lagoons are commonly divided into coastal lagoons and atoll lagoons. They have also been identified as occurring on mixed-sand and gravel coastlines. There is an overlap between bodies of water classified as coastal lagoons and bodies of water classified as estuaries. Lagoons are common coastal features around many parts of the world.

The island is very low, no more than 10 metres (33 ft) above sea level at its highest point. The highest elevations are found along a rim that closely follows the coastline. The interior forms a depression that is only a few meters above sea level in the western part and is below sea level (filled by the lagoon) in the east central part. Because of this topography, the ocean cannot be seen from much of Malden's interior. [3]

There is no standing fresh water on Malden Island, though a fresh water lens may exist. [4]

A continuous heavy surf falls all along the coast, forming a narrow white to gray sandy beach. Except on the west coast, where the white sandy beach is more extensive than elsewhere, a strip of dark gray coral rubble, forming a series of low ridges parallel to the coast, lies within the narrow beach, extending inward to the island rim. [3]

Flora and fauna

A pair of masked boobies ( Sula dactylatra ) calling on Malden Island Malden Island AKK Sula dactylatra.jpg
A pair of masked boobies ( Sula dactylatra ) calling on Malden Island
Grey-backed terns flying over Malden Island with lagoon in background Malden AKK Terns.jpg
Grey-backed terns flying over Malden Island with lagoon in background

Because of Malden's isolation and aridity, its vegetation is extremely limited. Sixteen species of vascular plants have been recorded, of which nine are indigenous. The island is largely covered in stunted Sida fallax scrub, low herbs and grasses. Few, if any, of the clumps of stunted Pisonia grandis once found on the island still survive. Coconut palms planted by the guano diggers did not thrive, although a few dilapidated trees may still be seen. Introduced weeds, including the low-growing woody vine Tribulus cistoides , now dominate extensive open areas, providing increased cover for young sooty terns. [4]

Malden is an important breeding island for about a dozen species including masked boobies ( Sula dactylatra ), red-footed booby (Sula sula), tropicbirds (Phaethontidae), great frigatebird (Fregata minor), lesser frigatebird (Fregata ariel), [5] grey-backed tern (Onychoprion lunata), red-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda), sooty terns (sterna fuscata) It is also an important winter-stop for the bristle-thighed curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), a migrant from Alaska; [3] and other migratory seabirds (nineteen species in all).

Two kinds of lizards, the mourning gecko ( Lepidodactylus lugubris ) and snake-eyed skink ( Cryptoblepharus boutonii ) are present on Malden, together with brown libellulid dragonfly.

Cats, pigs, goats and house mice were introduced to Malden during the guano-digging period. While the goats and pigs have all died off, feral cats and house mice are still present. [3] Small numbers of green turtles nest on the beaches, and hermit crabs abound. [4]



The earliest documented Western sighting of Malden Island was on 25 March 1825, by Captain Samuel Bunker (1796-1874) of the American whaler Alexander [6] . On 30 July [7] , 1825, the island was seen again by Captain The 7th Lord Byron (a cousin of the famous poet). Byron, commanding the British warship HMS Blonde, was returning to London from a special mission to Honolulu to repatriate the remains of the young king and queen of Hawaii, who had died of measles during a visit to Britain. The island was named after Lt. Charles Robert Malden, navigator of the Blonde, who sighted the island and briefly explored it. [8] Andrew Bloxam, naturalist of the Blonde, and James Macrae, a botanist travelling for the Royal Horticultural Society, joined in exploring the island and recorded their observations. Malden may have been the island sighted by another whaling captain William Clark in 1823, aboard the Winslow. [9]

Prehistoric ruins

Early Polynesian ruins on Malden Island Malden Island AKK ruins.jpg
Early Polynesian ruins on Malden Island

At the time of its discovery by Europeans, Malden was found to be unoccupied, but the remains of ruined temples and other structures indicated that the island had at one time been inhabited. At various times these remains have been speculatively attributed to "wrecked seamen", "buccaneers", "South American Incas", "early Chinese navigators", etc. In 1924, the Malden ruins were examined by an archaeologist from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Kenneth Emory, who concluded that they were the creation of a small Polynesian population which had resided there for perhaps several generations some centuries earlier.

The ancient stone structures are located around the beach ridges, principally on the north and south sides. A total of 21 archaeological sites have been discovered, three of which (on the island's northwest side) are larger than the others. [10] These sites include temple platforms, called marae, house sites, and graves. Comparisons with stone structures on Tuamotu atolls show that a population of between 100 and 200 natives could have produced all of the Malden structures. Maraes of a similar type are found on Raivavae, one of the Austral Islands. Various wells used by these ancients were found by later settlers to be dry or brackish. [11]

Whalers and guano diggers

In the first half of the nineteenth century, during the heyday of American whaling in the central Pacific, Malden was visited on a number of occasions by American whalers.

In 1918, schooner Annie Larsen , infamous for her role in the Hindu-German Conspiracy, was stranded at Malden Island.

Malden was claimed by the U.S. Guano Company under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized citizens to take possession of uninhabited islands under the authority of the United States for the purpose of removing guano, a valuable agricultural fertilizer. Before the American company could begin their operations, however, the island was occupied by an Australian company under British licence. This company and its successors exploited the island continuously from the 1860s through 1927.

Writer Beatrice Grimshaw, a visitor to Malden in the guano-digging era, decried the "glaring barrenness of the bit island", [12] declaring that "...shade, coolness, refreshing fruit, pleasant sights and sounds: there are none. For those who live on the island, it is the scene of an exile which has to be endured somehow or other". She described Malden as containing "a little settlement fronted by a big wooden pier, and a desolate plain of low greyish-green herbage, relieved here and there by small bushes bearing insignificant yellow flowers". Water for settlers was produced by large distillation plants, since no fresh-water wells could be successfully dug on the island. [10]

The five or six European supervisors on the island were given "a row of little tin-roofed, one-storeyed houses above the beach", while the native labourers from Niue Island and Aitutaki [11] were housed in "big, barn-like shelters". Grimshaw described these edifices as being "large, bare, shady buildings fitted with wide shelves, on which the men spread their mats and pillows to sleep". Their food consisted of "rice, biscuits, yams, tinned beef, and tea, with a few cocoanuts for those who may fall sick". Food for the white supervisors consisted of "tinned food of various kinds, also bread, rice, fowls, pork, goat, and goat's milk", but vegetables were hard to come by.

Indentured labourers on Malden were contracted for one year, paid ten shillings per week plus room and board, and repatriated to their home islands when their contracts expired. Salaries for the supervisors were described as "quite high". [13] Work hours were 5 am to 5 pm, with one hour and 45 minutes given off for meals.

The guano diggers constructed a unique railroad on Malden Island, with cars powered by large sails. Laborers pushed empty carts from the loading area up the tramway to the digging pits, where they were then loaded with guano. At the end of the day, the sails were unfurled, and the train cars whisked back to the settlement by the prevailing southeastern winds. While cars were known to jump the tracks more than once during these excursions, the system seems to have worked fairly well. [13] Railroad handcars were also used. This tramway remained in use on Malden as late as 1924, and its roadbed still exists on the island today.

Although guano digging continued on Malden through the early 1920s, all human activity on the island had ceased by the early 1930s. [11] No further human use seems to have been made of Malden until 1956.

British nuclear testing

Memorial tablet in Paisley remembering the people concerned in the tests Memorial tablet in Paisley.jpg
Memorial tablet in Paisley remembering the people concerned in the tests

In 1956 the United Kingdom selected Malden as the "instrumentation site" for its first series of thermonuclear (H-bomb) weapons tests, based at Kiritimati (Christmas Island). British officials insisted that Malden should not be called a "target island". Nevertheless, the bombing target marker was located at the south point of the island and three thermonuclear devices were detonated at high altitude a short distance offshore in 1957. The airstrip constructed on the island by the Royal Engineers in 1956–57 remained usable in July 1979. [4]

Malden Island today

Malden was incorporated in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1972, and included in the portion of the colony which became the Republic of Kiribati in 1979. The U.S. continued to dispute British sovereignty, based on its nineteenth century Guano Act claims, until after Kiribati became independent. On 20 September 1979, representatives of the United States and Kiribati met on Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts group of Kiribati, and signed a treaty of friendship between their two nations (commonly referred to as the Treaty of Tarawa of 1979) by which the United States recognized Kiribati's sovereignty over Malden and thirteen other islands in the Line and Phoenix Islands groups. This treaty entered into force on 23 September 1983. [14]

The main value of the island to Kiribati lies in the resources of the 200-nautical-mile (230 mi; 370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone which surrounds it, particularly the rich tuna fisheries. Gypsum deposits on the island itself are extensive, but do not appear to be economically viable under foreseeable market conditions, mainly due to cost of transportation. [3] Some revenue has been realized from ecotourism; the World Discoverer, an adventure cruise ship operated by Society Expeditions, visited the island once or twice annually for several years in the mid-1990s.

Malden was reserved as a wildlife sanctuary and closed area, and was officially designated as the "Malden Island Wildlife Sanctuary", on 29 May 1975, under the 1975 Wildlife Conservation Ordinance. [15] The principal purpose of this reservation was to protect the large breeding populations of seabirds. This sanctuary is administered by the Wildlife Conservation Unit of the Ministry of Line and Phoenix Islands Development, headquartered on Kiritimati. [15] There is no resident staff at Malden, however, and occasional visits by foreign yachtsmen and fishermen cannot be monitored from Kiritimati. A fire in 1977, possibly caused by visitors, threatened breeding seabirds; this remains a potential threat, particularly during periods of drought.

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Baker Island is an uninhabited atoll located just north of the equator in the central Pacific Ocean about 3,090 km (1,920 mi) southwest of Honolulu. The island lies almost halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Its nearest neighbor is Howland Island, 42 mi (68 km) to the north-northwest; both have been claimed as territories of the United States since 1857, though the United Kingdom considered them part of the British Empire between 1897 and 1936.

Jarvis Island Coral island located in the South Pacific Ocean

Jarvis Island is an uninhabited 1 34-square-mile (4.5 km2) coral island located in the South Pacific Ocean at 0°22′S160°01′W, about halfway between Hawaii and the Cook Islands. It is an unincorporated, unorganized territory of the United States, administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service of the United States Department of the Interior as part of the National Wildlife Refuge system. Unlike most coral atolls, the lagoon on Jarvis is wholly dry.

Kingman Reef reef and unincorporated U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean

Kingman Reef is a largely submerged, uninhabited triangular-shaped reef, 9.5 nautical miles east-west and 5 nmi (9 km) north-south, located in the North Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and American Samoa at 6°23′N162°25′W. It is the northernmost of the Northern Line Islands and lies 36 nautical miles (67 km) northwest of the next closest island, and 930 nautical miles (1,720 km) south of Honolulu.

Geography of Kiribati

This article describes the geography of the Republic of Kiribati. Kiribati consists of 32 atolls and one island scattered over all four hemispheres in an expanse of ocean equivalent in size to the continental United States. The islands lie roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia in the Micronesian and Polynesian regions of the South Pacific. The three main island groupings are the Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Line Islands. On 1 January 1995 Kiribati moved the International Date Line to include its easternmost islands and make it the same day throughout the country.

Midway Atoll One of the United States Minor Outlying Islands in the Hawaiian archipelago

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Geography of Nauru

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Tabuaeran atoll in Kiribati

Tabuaeran or Tahanea, known in English as Fanning Atoll, is an atoll that is part of the Line Islands of the central Pacific Ocean and part of Kiribati. The land area is 33.73 square kilometres, and the population in 2010 was 1,960. The maximum elevation is about 3 m (10 ft) above high tide.

Teraina coral atoll in the central Pacific Ocean

Teraina or Teeraina, also known as Washington Island is a coral atoll in the central Pacific Ocean and part of the Northern Line Islands which belong to Kiribati. Obsolete names of Teeraina are Prospect Island and New York Island. The island is located approximately 4.71° North latitude and 160.76° West longitude. Teeraina differs from most other atolls in the world in that it has a large freshwater lake, concealed within its luxuriant coconut palm forest; this is the only permanent freshwater lake in the whole of Kiribati.

Enderbury Island island in the Pacific Ocean

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Birnie Island is a small, uninhabited coral island, 20 hectares in area, part of the Phoenix Island group, that is part of the Republic of Kiribati. It is located about 100 km SE of Kanton Island and 90 km WNW of Rawaki Island, formerly known as Phoenix Island. It lies at 03°35′S171°33′W. Birnie island measures only 1.2 km long and 0.5 km wide. There is no anchorage, but landing can be made on the lee beach.

Manra Island island

Manra Island or Sydney Island, is one of the Phoenix Islands in the Republic of Kiribati. It lies at 4°27′S171°16′W. longitude, and has an area of 4.4 km2. and an elevation of approximately six meters. Together with the seven other Phoenix Islands, it forms part of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area,. Charles Darwin visited the island during his five-year voyage (1831-1836), following which in 1842 he published an explanation for the creation of coral atolls in the South Pacific.

Orona island

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Rawaki Island island

Rawaki Island is one of the Phoenix Islands in the Republic of Kiribati, also known by its previous name of Phoenix Island. It is a small, uninhabited atoll, approximately 1.2 by 0.8 kilometres in size and 65 hectares in area, with a shallow, brackish lagoon that is not connected to the open sea. It is located at 3.721°S 170.712°W.

Howland and Baker islands are two uninhabited U.S. atolls in the Equatorial Pacific that are located close to one another. Both islands are wildlife refuges, the larger of which is Howland Island. The pair of islands may also be referred to as Baker and Howland Islands. They are both part of the larger political territory of the United States Minor Outlying Islands and they are also both part of the larger geographic grouping of the Phoenix Islands. Each is a National Wildlife Refuge managed by a division of Interior, the Fish and Wildlife Service. On January 6, 2009, President George Bush, in creating the monument, added both islands to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.


  1. Edward R. Lovell, Taratau Kirata & Tooti Tekinaiti (September 2002). "Status report for Kiribati's coral reefs" (PDF). Centre IRD de Nouméa. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  2. Warne, Kennedy (September 2014). "A World Apart – The Southern Line Islands". National Geographic. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Office, Zegrahm (11 September 2008). "On Location: A Wildlife Spectacle on Malden Island". Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Protected Areas Programme: Malden Island. Retrieved on 7 July 2008.
  5. "Sites – Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs): Malden Island". BirdLife International. 2007. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
  6. Dehner, Steve (2018). "Supplements To Malden Island's History: The Nantucket Connection II". Google Books.
  7. The discovery date is given incorrectly as 29 July in some sources, e.g. Edwin H. Bryan, Jr. (1942), American Polynesia and the Hawaiian Chain, Tongg Publishing Company, p. 132
  8. Dunmore, p 46
  9. Quanchi & Robson, p 30 & 39
  10. 1 2 Living Archipelagos: Malden Island. Archived 5 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 7 July 2008.
  11. 1 2 3 Bryan, E.H. Malden Island. Retrieved on 7 July 2008.
  12. Grimshaw, Beatrice (1908). In the Strange South Seas. Retrieved on 7 July 2008. Contains a fascinating account of a journey to Malden Island during the guano-digging era.
  13. 1 2 Grimshaw, 1908.
  14. "Treaty of friendship between the United States of America and the Republic of Kiribati" . Retrieved 2013-06-08. Advise and consent to ratification by the Senate June 21, 1983;
  15. 1 2 Paine, James R. (1991). IUCN Directory of Protected Areas in Oceania. World Conservation Union. ISBN   978-0-8248-1217-1.