Kanton Island is one of the largest and least densely populated atolls, or islands, that comprise the island country of Kiribati. It is known by several other names, including “Swallow Island” and “Mary Island.” It is part of a cluster of atolls that are collectively called the Phoenix Islands. Kanton is the largest atoll in the Phoenix cluster, and the only one permanently inhabited by humans, though numbers of them are few.
While Kanton Island is home to an indigenous population today, it has historically been a place that attracted European explorers and ship captains. In 1595, Spanish explorers claim to have been the first Europeans to discover the atoll. A pair of British whaling ships documented a journey to Kanton Island years later in 1824. The island was reportedly named after an American ship called the Canton, which ran aground on Kanton's rocky shores in 1854. In more recent times, Kanton Island has been used as a stopping point for military planes during and after World War II.
At one time Kanton Island had an international airport, as well as its own post office and an official United States Post Office. These facilities were abandoned as U.S. and British military forces deserted the islands. Today, only about 25 people live on the island, and they inhabit a village by the name of Tebaronga.
Topography and Geology
Like many of the Kiribati atolls, it is formed primarily of coral, but it is also comprised of sand and limestone. It is a low-lying atoll with a surface area made mostly of coral, covered by a thin layer of herbs and low-lying grass in many places, along with a number of lagoons.
Though rainwater is sparse, the atoll does support some plant and animal life. There are a dozen types of native herbs and grasses on Kanton, including heliotrope and kou. Coconut trees are one of the most prominent introduced species on the island. There are over 20 types of birds on Kanton Island, along with hermit crabs, turtles, spiders, and lizards.
In 2006, Kanton Island, along with the rest of the Phoenix Islands, was designated as a protected area. This area is a marine reserve that spans over 160,000 square miles.
This atoll receives very little annual rainfall, with as little as 8.7 inches a year. The only drinking water available to the people living there is from whatever little rainwater they can collect in cisterns. As it is virtually uninhabited, there is little in the way of phone service, facilities and available water. Travel to this atoll should be considered risky and very dangerous.