Pile Island

aerial photos of atoll

Aerial photographs of the atoll

Pile Island is an uninhabited atoll approximately 380km from the nearest landmass. It is a US protectorate under the Guano islands act, though it has never been subject to mining. Its highest point is 10 feet above sea level and its lagoon is dry. Its guano deposits are almost nonexistent as no seabird colony has been sighted on the island since 1867.

Pile island was discovered by sheer accident when the freighter Soerabaja ran aground of a reef some 60 yards beyond its shore. The crewmen took to the atoll, looking for supplies to aid repair of the damaged hull and found little of note. Only one paragraph in the captain’s log is spared for the experience, merely noting that the island itself had not been visible until after they ran aground on the reef.

ships on the sea

The island, viewed from the reef

It is from the next visit that the island gains its notoriety. The Margarethe was on an expedition to find guano-rich islands of the pacific when they found Pile. Strangely, they noted the reef as being more than 100 yards from the visible shore. The crew of the Margarethe established a base camp on the north part of the island. Along with the guano deposits, the crew recorded the presence of a sinkhole approximately 8X5 yards. The crew attempted to dig a well and assess the size of the atoll’s freshwater lens. The hole wound up being over ten feet in depth before showing any amount of seepage. The liquid that filed the hole possessed an odd viscosity. The crewman who volunteered to drink it reported it had no flavor and was unpleasant to swallow. Later that day, the crewman fell over dead from no apparent cause.

The surviving crewmen spent the night on the island. They reported tremors constantly throughout the night, though the crew remaining on the ship sensed no such disturbances. In the morning, the landing team rejoined the ship and they weighed anchor.

The next ship did not arrive until 1906, the USS Teague, coming to claim the island as a protectorate. Armed with more modern scientific equipment, the crew was able to document the island in more detail. The reef was officially placed at 200 yards beyond the visible shore. The freshwater lens was deemed nonexistent.

The sinkhole enlarged by the Magarethe’s crew had reached a depth of 20 feet with no seepage, impossible in such a geographic location. An attempt to gauge the composition of the soil with a spar produced a hole. Further prodding exposed a hollow space of unknown depth beneath the sinkhole. Volcanic activity was suspected, but the hole gave off no heat that would indicate a chimney. There was no vegetation on the island, so the crew members who volunteered to enter the space had to descend on a rope anchored with a series of belaying pins.

In what little light filtered through the hole, the crewmen could discern a cave system at least as expansive as the atoll itself. The crewmen could also see faint markings on the rocks which they at first dismissed as ore leakage; when they were passed down a ship’s lantern they could discern that the markings were what appeared to be representational pictoglyphs. The glyphs themselves depicted a series of scenes that seemed apocalyptic in nature, containing fanciful creatures not known to man. No Polynesian presence on the island has been confirmed before or since, leaving the origin of these pictoglyphs a mystery to this day.


A photgraph of the glyphs, circa 1967

Once topside, the sailors complained about a vibration that had begun in the marine cave and persisted after they came up. They were given a cursory examination and no physical symptoms were found. As the landing party camped that night, they, too, felt the tremors that the Margarethe’s crew had described, this time accompanied by an atonal chiming sound. The ship’s seismograph recorded nothing during the night. In the morning, the sailors that had descended into the cave were found dead.

The Teague set sail for Palmyra, to deliver the dead and report their findings. They did not return to the island. Pile was not one of the atolls chosen for nuclear testing during WWII, nor was it deemed strategically important enough to be the site of a base. In 1935, the island was declared a wildlife preserve. The few expeditions undertaken since 1906 have been by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, who also restrict access to the island.

The reef’s last recorded distance was 500 yards from the island.


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