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FRENCH FRIGATE SHOAL

French Frigate Shoal consists of a crescent-shaped reef on a circular platform about eighteen miles in diameter, located 480 miles northwest of Honolulu. This reef forms a barrier against winds and currents around the north and east sides of the platform. The south and west sides of the platform are covered by water which averages a hundred feet in depth. Near the center of the platform stands a small rocky pinnacle, La Perouse Rock.

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The formation of this platform was described by Dr. Harold S. Palmer; paraphrasing this account we might say that once upon a time a high volcanic peak, perhaps fifteen miles in diameter, rose above the waves in this area. Rain and waves eroded its slopes and coast until all of it that now remains above the sea is La Perouse Rock, 500 feet long, 80 feet thick, and 122 feet high, and its companion, 350 feet to the northwest, which is 100 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 10 feet high.

Corals grew upon the platform which the waves had carved, until they formed a sweeping curve of reef 17 miles from tip to tip and 5 miles wide in the middle. On this reef sand and coral debris is continually being shifted from place to place and piled into little islets; elsewhere there is shallow lagoon. We know that these islets are being built up and washed away, for in 1859, when a survey was made by Captain N.C. Brooks of the Hawaiian barque Gambia, there were five rather large coral islets, while in 1923, when the Tanager Expedition surveyed the shoal, more than thirteen small ones were found. The above sketch map shows their location at that time, with the names that were given to them. The islets doubtless have shifted their position again by now.

In the lee of this crescent-shaped reef the water is calm and smooth when the trade wind blows, as it does most of the time. This has been found a safe landing place by several flights of sea planes which have flown there from Oahu during the past half dozen years. The reef also breaks the force of the waves against the rocky remnant of the once lofty dome, and is helping to preserve it. In certain lights and from certain directions La Perouse Rock resembles a ship under full sail, but this resemblance to a frigate is not what gave the shoal its name. The name really should be "French Frigates Shoal," as we shall see from the account of its discovery.

The gallant French navigator, Jean Francois de Galaup comte de la Perouse, with his two vessels, Broussole and Astrolabe, was westward bound from California on a voyage of discovery. The presence of large numbers of sea birds-boobies, man-o'-war birds, and terns-had put them on the alert for a sight of land, and on November 4, 1786, they had discovered Necker Island. After making a survey of the shoals to the west of this lonely rock, the two vessels proceeded westward. "Since our departure from Monterey," runs the entertaining narrative, "we had never experienced a finer night, or a more pleasant sea; but this tranquillity of the water was among the circumstances which had nearly proved fatal to us. Toward half past one in the morning we saw breakers at the distance of two cables length a-head of my ship. From this smoothness of the sea they made scarcely any noise, and some foam only, at distant intervals, was perceptible. The Astrolabe was a little farther off, but she saw them at the same instant with myself. Both vessels immediately hauled on the larboard, and stood with their heads south-southeast; and as they made way during their manoeuvre, our nearest distance from the breakers could not, I conceive, be more than a cable's length."

La Perouse goes on to describe how the next day a careful survey was made of the shoal, which the discoverer named "Basse des Fregates Francaises, shoal of the French Frigates, because it has nearly proved the final termination of our voyage." This discovery was made in November 6, 1786.

Until recently, the history of French Frigate Shoal (the name is that officially adopted by the United States Geographic Board, October 1, 1924) has been a quiet one. Occasional vessels stopped, but most of them gave the dangerous spot a wide berth. The Provincial Government of Hawaii leased the area for twenty-five years from February 15, 1894, but little use was made of the place. On July 13, 1895, it was formally annexed for the Republic of Hawaii by Captain J. A. King. It was included among the islands acquired by the United States, July 7, 1898, when Hawaii became a Territory. In 1909 it was made a part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation. Officially it is part of the City and County of Honolulu, but it has been administered jointly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1923 the sand islets had a total area of about 46 acres, of which 17 acres were covered with a sparse growth of grass and other low vegetation, a total of six species of herbs and vines. Their highest elevation was 10 to 12 feet; most of the islets were lower. Their population consisted of thousands of sea birds, most of them terns.

With a calm sea it was quite possible to land on the southwest side of La Perouse Rock. But the precipitous slopes were so crumbly and slippery with bird guano that no one cared to climb to the top. Rock samples showed that this remnant core consists of olivine basalt, very similar to that which makes up much of the rest of the great chain of volcanic mountains, the summits of which form the islands of the Hawaiian group.  

Approaching La Perouse Rock, French Frigate Shoal  - this was once
a large volcanic island but erosion has removed all but this last remnant

La Perouse Rock, French Frigate Shoal

The above photographs are courtesy of NOAA.
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
 
 
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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 6th June 2012)