French Frigate Shoals

From Academic Kids

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Map of French Frigate Shoals

The French Frigate Shoals (Hawaiian: Mokupāpapa) is the largest atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Its name commemorates French explorer Jean-François de La Pérouse, who nearly lost two frigates when attempting to navigate the shoals. It consists of a 20-mile long crescent-shaped reef, twelve sandbars, and the 120 ft. (36 m) high La Perouse Pinnacle, the only remnant of its volcanic origins. Total land area of the islets is 67 acres (.25 km2). Total coral reef area of the shoals is over 232,000 acres (938 km2).

The French Frigate Shoals is about 560 miles northwest of Honolulu.


Although there is no evidence of extensive human activity or presence in the area, the earliest human visitors to French Frigate Shoals probably came from the larger Hawaiian Islands, which were settled by Polynesians between 1100 and 1300 CE.

The Hawaiian island chain lay outside the routes followed by early European explorers, and it was not until La Pérouse's near-disastrous discovery that the shoals were known to the outside world. La Pérouse, aboard the frigate Broussole, was sailing westward from Monterey en route to Macao. During the night of November 6 1786, sailors sighted breakers directly in their path, about a thousand feet ahead. Both the Broussole and her companion vessel, the frigate Astrolabe, were immediately brought about, passing within a few hundred feet of the breakers. At daybreak, the ships returned and mapped the southeastern half of the atoll, as well as finding the rock that would later be named after La Pérouse. La Pérouse named the shoals Basse des Fregates Françaises, the "Shoal of the French Frigates".

During the late 1800's, American and European companies became interested in the possibility of mining guano in the Hawaiian Islands. U.S. Navy Lieutenant John M. Brooke, sailing on the naval schooner Fenimore Cooper, formally took possession of French Frigate Shoals for the United States on 14 January 1859, in accordance with the Guano Islands Act. In 1894, French Frigate Shoals, Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, and Pearl and Hermes Reef were leased for 25 years by the Republic of Hawaii to the North Pacific Phosphate and Fertilizer Company; however, guano and phosphate deposits at French Frigate Shoals were found to be impractical to mine. Oddly enough, the Republic did not formally claim possession of the shoals until July 13, 1895.

French Frigate Shoals was included among the islands acquired by the United States on July 7, 1898, when Hawaii became a Territory. In 1909 it was made a part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation.

During the early months of the U.S.-Japanese conflict in World War II, Japanese seaplanes occasionally used French Frigate Shoals as a rendezvous point for refuelling by submarine. By mid-1942, increasing U.S. naval activity in the area prevented further Japanese use. After the Battle of Midway, the U.S. Navy built a Naval Air Station on Tern Island, enlarging the island sufficiently to support a 3300 ft. (1005 m) landing strip. The Station's main function was as an emergency landing site for planes flying between Hawaii and Midway Atoll. The original seawall, runway, and some of the buildings remain. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service continues to maintain a permanent field station there. In 2000, the atoll became part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.


The reef system at French Frigate Shoals supports 41 species of stony corals, including several species that are not found in the main Hawaiian Island chain. More than 600 species of marine invertebrates, many of which are endemic, are found here as well. More than 150 species of algae live among the reefs. Especially diverse algal communities are found immediately adjacent to La Perouse Pinnacle. This has lead to speculation that an influx of additional nutrients — in the form of guano — is responsible for the diversity and productivity of algae in this environment. The reef waters support large numbers of fish. The masked angelfish (Genicanthus personatus), endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, is relatively commmon here. Most of Hawaii's green sea turtles travel to the shoals to nest. The small islets of French Frigate Shoals provide refuge to the largest surviving population of Hawaiian monk seals, the second most endangered pinniped in the world.

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