Lisianski Island lies about 905 nautical miles north west of Honolulu and 115 miles west of Laysan, its nearest neighbour. It is a low, flat sand and coral island, about a mile and a quarter long , north and south, by three-quarters of a mile wide. A V-shaped ridge of sand on the northern half, reaches a height of 30 to 40 feet. On the south is a narrow crescent of sand dune, 20 feet high. Between is a depression, lower even than the rim, ten feet above sea level, which surrounds the island. Formerly this basin is thought to have contained a lagoon or shallow lake. The island is situated on the northern edge of a large reef platform which extends several miles to the south.
The spelling Lisianski (not Lisiansky) was officially adopted by the United States Geographic Board, October 1, 1924. Other names by which the island has been called include: Pell, Lassion, and Sapion; and Laska, Lasan Rahys, and Neavas also probably apply.
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The island was discovered at 10.00 p.m. on October 15, 1805, when the Russian exploring ship Neva, commanded by Captain Urey Lisiansky, grounded on one of its reefs on the eastern side. Only by throwing overboard the guns and other heavy objects was the vessel refloated. Hardly were they again in deep water when a sudden squall once more drove them onto an even more dangerous reef. By discarding cables, anchors, and the rest of their heavy objects, the Neva again was floated before the evening of the 17th. The next day, fortunately, was cabin and all the heavy articles were recovered safely.
Going ashore on the 18th, Captain Lisiansky found numerous birds, large seals, turtles, and quantities of fish. The sandy surface, he noted, was full of holes (shearwater burrows) which were concealed by creeping plants. No fresh water was found. A quantity of shells, corals sponges, and other specimens was collected, and huge redwood logs were seen on the beach. In his journal Captain Lisiansky says that "this island promises nothing to the adventurous voyager but certain danger." He concludes his account of it by saying: "To the southeast point of the bank where the vessel grounded, I gave the name of Neva; while the island itself, in compliance with the unanimous wishes of my ship's company, received the appellation of Lisiansky."
A dangerous shoal, 7.1/2 miles S.E. by 1/2 S. from the east side of the island, was reported by Captain Stanikowitch in 1827.
Captain John Paty, in the course of an exploring expedition to the islands N.W. of Oahu, on the Hawaiian schooner Mauokawai, visited the island on May 11, 1857. He reported the surface covered with coarse grass, and also the finding of fresh water by digging five feet at the centre of the former lagoon basin. Birds, fish, seal, and turtle, he said, were abundant, but not so plentiful as at Laysan. He gave directions for approaching the island from a point west of the south end, steering into a lagoon-like area within the reef through a narrow break marked by two large patches of breakers, north and south of each other and three quarters of a mile apart. Within the reef and in the lee of the island good anchorage was to be found in 4 to 8 fathoms of water one half to one and a half miles from the beach. The detached rocks which surround the island and which are numerous in this lagoon-like area, make a careful lookout necessary. On the island he found some wreckage on which the name "Holder Borden" was carved. This vessel was wrecked in November, 1844, on what was called Pell's Island. As no island has been found in the position given by Captain Pell of the whaling ship Delaware, it has been concluded that Pell and Lisianski were one and the same.
In 1859 Lisianski was visited by Captain N.C. Brooks, in the Hawaiian barque Gambia. He furnishes navigators with considerable information about the surrounding reefs: A bank extends several miles to the south, shoaling from 19 to 8 fathoms near the reef. The island should not be approached from the south, Brooks states. On the east and north sides the reef is about a mile from the island. On the west it extends in a curve to 2.1/2 miles, with a lagoon within. The Conahassett, as well as the Holder Borden, was lost on this reef, according to Brooks. He recommends that the best approach is from the north and west, and gives detailed directions. A two-foot tide was reported, as well as a strong current, the direction depending upon the wind. The low, southern part of the island, he said was overgrown with shrubs (which probably means Scaevola). He reported finding a notice, dated April 27, 1859, left by the ship San Diego, taking possession of the island for parties in San Francisco.
On June 29, 1891, Captain F. D. Walker visited Lisianski in the schooner Kaalokai. He reported in his entertaining "Log" that much of the island was covered with low scrub brush, behind a beautiful sand beach 100 feet wide. Seals were sleeping on the beach, large mullet swam in shoals, everywhere, and gird life was plentiful. "The island is a little paradise, or could be made one, at a moderate cost," he writes. He estimated that a thousand tons of good guano remained in the dry lagoon. Contrast these accounts with reports of conditions a quarter of a century later.
The island was leased by the Hawaiian kingdom to the North Pacific Phosphate and Fertiliser Company for 20 years from March 29, 1890. Carl Elschner, who visited the island in 1915, reported that some guano had been shipped, but only the best, much phosphatised sand and soil remaining in the depressed area.
At some time prior to Elschner's visit, rabbits had been introduced, probably from Laysan, whence they had been brought by Max Schlemmer. Left to themselves and without enemies, the rabbits had thrived for a time, multiplying in geometric proportion, as rabbits can. Soon the food supply began to be inadequate for the huge population. Writing in the Honolulu Advertiser for June 1, 1923, the late Larrin A. Thurston presents a vivid picture of what must have been taken place. There was a frantic search for food; then the rabbits became cannibals, the old devouring the young. He depicts a gruesome scene of a last newborn skinny rabbit being devoured by the last starving mother rabbit.
Elschner saw the island at about its worst. "Dreary and desolate," he called it, with the only vegetation a single tobacco patch, the remnant of that set out by Max Schlemmer, and two poorly-looking specimens of Ipomoea. With no plants to hold the sand, the birds were threatened with extinction. No fresh water was obtainable, shallow wells yielding only brackish water.
It may have been this, or a similar account, which finally prompted the U.S. Biological Survey, custodian of the bird reservation, to "do something about it." They cooperated with Bernice P. Bishop Museum and other scientific institutions in Hawaii in sending an expedition to the north-western Hawaiian islands, on the U.S.S. Tanager, in the spring of 1923. Many rabbits were killed off on Laysan, but when the party reached Lisianski they found the rabbits all dead and the vegetation beginning to come back. There was a patch of bunch grass (Eragrostis) at the north-west corner and a few scattered plants of pickle weed (Sesuvium), purslane (Portulaca) and a local variety of a low, branching, native Hawaiian annual (Nama). The late Gerrit P. Wilder, honorary warden of the bird reservation, planted seeds of Barringtonia trees at that time, but none is known to have survived.
The only other important event in Lisianski's history has to do with the slaughter of birds. The trouble began (or rather, first became noticed officially) early in 1904, when a party of over 75 Japanese landed on the island. The presence of the party was reported by Captain Niblack of the U.S.S. Iroquois in April, 1904, and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Thetis, Captain O. C. Hamlet, was dispatched on May 8, to bring them off. It reached Lisianski June 16, and found the party well housed in four thatched-roof shacks, but with only a little rice and dried tern meat left, and consequently not at all unwilling to leave. Several hundred packages of dried bird's wings could not be removed at the time and were left on the island.
The leader of the bird poachers told Acting Governor Atkinson that the party had been stranded on the island when the schooner, Aju, sank. He said that they had put up a signal of distress, seen by the Taiyo Maru, which had spared them some provisions and removed one of their party. With such a story, and as no law was found which protected the birds, there was no prosecution. Both the Territorial and the Federal Governments thought that they ought to claim the bird feathers, which were valued at $20,000; but before Captain Weisbarth, who had been sent to get them, could reach the island, they all had been removed, probably by the schooner Wiji Maru, which had been active in bird-killing, and had been warned away from Midway in June. This vessel later was wrecked on Pearl and Hermes Reef, part of the crew being found on Lisianski in September, 1904, together with part of the crew of the Tanzi Maru.
Reports of such slaughter of birds stirred up extensive interest in bird protection. An appeal was made to Washington, and in 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt initiated a joint resolution in Congress, which set aside the islands from Nihoa to Kure, with the exception of Midway as the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation.
So it was that, when the U.S. Revenue Cutter Thetis visited these islands in January, 1910, and found 15 Japanese bird killers on Laysan and 8 on Lisianski, they were promptly arrested, brought to Honolulu on February 2, and turned over to the United States Marshal, charged with poaching.
Today, with poaching at an end, the rabbits exterminated, and the vegetation again spreading over its low sandy surface, Lisianski once more is becoming a populous bird sanctuary.