Located far off the Pacific coast of Mexico, Clipperton Island is truly the destination for someone looking to “get away from it all.” Clipperton was found in various parts of the last millennium by Spanish and French explorers and has been in French colonial overseas possession for about two centuries, minus a period of dispute with Mexico over its claim, and was a center of mining and fishing operations at times.
So what might you expect to find on this island? Not much. Clipperton Island consists of a thin strip of land encircling a lagoon full of brackish water. There are no human inhabitants. There seems to be no workable soil to speak of, and the only point of interest aside from some clumps of palm trees is a 100 foot-tall rock.
A map of Clipperton Island. (Source: Christian Jost (CC BY-SA 3.0))
Why, then, would anyone bother with this place? Aside from the probably very complicated legal issues regarding Mexico and France’s territorial waters and resultant fishing and mining rights in the Pacific surrounding, it doesn’t have anything to offer, does it?
Well, it used to have plenty of something – guano. Guano is “the excrement of seabirds, cave-dwelling bats, pinnipeds, or (in English usage) birds in general” (source: Wikipedia.) Lots of islands in the Pacific happened to contain a lot of guano, probably as a result of birds living on said islands for thousands of years. As it happened, bird shit was highly sought after as a fertilizer by many countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the United States Congress even passed an act declaring that any US citizen could claim any island containing guano that was uninhabited and not held by any other country for the US. The US did claim a lot of Pacific islands on this basis and still holds some of them to this day, but Clipperton, being a French holding from the 18th century, was not among them. So those lucky French farmers were able to get their hands on the lucrative crap that must have resulted in nice crop yields.
Clipperton was visited on a fairly regular basis by miners looking for guano and by fishing and whaling vessels. Because of its both literal and figurative shittiness, however, the island was never permanently inhabited but once, when a Mexican settlement was established there. Said settlement was supplied by ship until 1915, when shipments were halted in the midst of World War I. The inhabitants were then required to live off fish and rainwater collected in boats. As a result of its isolation, the Clipperton settlement broke out into scurvy and mostly died, and the remaining man on the island reportedly lost his mind and lorded over the several remaining women and children and committed several serious crimes before being killed, either in self-defense or out of retribution, by one of the women. The survivors were soon thereafter rescued, and perhaps understandably, no one has tried to live on Clipperton Island since.
Clipperton Island isn’t an entirely bad place, though, if you’re a marine or avian biologist with an interest in the eastern Pacific. A lot of birds still make their homes on the island. A large amount of coral grows around the island, along with a diverse group of Pacific sea life. A species of bright orange crabs also lives on Clipperton, but put your shellfish fork away: their meat is poisonous.
Getting to Clipperton Island is difficult, as it has no harbor or even a dock or anything and nobody goes there save a few scientific expeditions and maybe the occasional French patrol ship. But you probably shouldn’t visit anyway. In fact, you should just be happy that you live in a place with constant fresh water supplies and no poisonous crabs.