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American Samoa

Swains Island

If you're really feeling adventurous, try gaining permission to visit Swains Island, 220mi (350km) north-north-west of Tutuila. The privately owned island is a 1.25 sq mi (3.25 sq km) ring of land surrounding a brackish lagoon. Culturally and geographically it belongs to the Tokelau Islands, but politically it's a far more vexed issue. Without going into all the details, sovereignty of the island has bounced from Britain to New Zealand to the USA in the past 75 years.

The atoll of Swains Island consists of a low-lying ring of coral surrounding a shallow and hypersaline central lagoon that has no connection to the open ocean. The outer perimeter of the atoll (around 13 km in circumference) consists of flat coral reefs that are awash at low tide (tan coloured areas in the above image). A single island (Swains Island) of 2.5 km˛ forms a ring-shaped, continuous, landmass between the lagoon and the outer reefs. Most of the original vegetation of the island has been replaced with coconut palm.

The first European discoverer of the island was Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, who landed there in 1606, naming it de Quiros’ Island. It was unvisited by Europeans until 1840 when Captain W.C. Swains of New Bedford, Massachusetts visited the island thinking he was the first to land on the island and named it Swain’s Island. However, a British captain, Capt. Turnbull, who also claimed to have discovered the island, sold Swains Island to an American, Eli Hutchinson Jennings Sr. In 1956 he and his Samoan wife moved to the island, claiming it with an American Flag.

In the early 1990s, the Toklauan government threatened to 'declare war on the US' and launch a canoe invasion of the island - home to one family, hired labourers and a copra plantation - but nothing has happened as yet. Visiting the island requires the permission of the Jennings family, favours from the Marine and Wildlife Resources Officer in Fagatogo, and negotiations with charter boat companies.

The island is a ring of sand and coral, a mile and a half east and west, a mile wide, and nowhere more than 20 feet high, surrounding a shallow lagoon, which is only slightly brackish, with no surface connection with the sea. Most of the land, from the crest of the narrow ocean beach to the very edge of the lagoon, is thickly covered with vegetation, about 800 acres of coconut palms and various trees and shrubs found widespread in the Pacific.

Besides the present official name of Swains Island, the island is also known by its native Tokelau name of Olosenga (or Olohega), and as Quiros Island, Gente Hermosa, and Jennings Island. These names outline its long and varied history.

A belt road circles the island, about half way between sea and lagoon. Along this ran an ancient Ford truck, collecting coconuts and carrying workmen and supplies. The Jennings family lived in a frame house about 3/4 mile down the road from the village, on the south side. The spot was called "Etena" (Eden), but it was more generally referred to as "The Residency." A power-driven generator supplied electricity for lights and radio. Swimming in the lagoon was available from a short pier. The edge of the lagoon is shallow, but parts of it reach a depth of 8 fathoms (48 feet).

Periodic visits are paid by the station ship from Pago Pago; and of recent years U.S. coast guard and naval vessels have stopped on their routine trips south. The lagoon may be too small for seaplanes; but the island is certainly one of the most beautiful and picturesque under the American flag. Were it not for the mosquitoes and small flies, it would be quite an island paradise.

For more general information on Samoa, go to:

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We have included Samoa in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Bounty Voyage and South Sea Dream Voyage.

Another option is to create your own package to Samoa by utilizing the seperate travel components, like hotels, carrental, flights and excursions on the islands.


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