History & Geography

Desecheo and Navassa are United States islands located in the Caribbean Sea, a body of water covering about 1,063,000 square miles or 2,754,000 kilometers. Desecheo is a mountainous island of about 360 acres (1.45 sq km) and Navassa is a relatively flat island of about 1,280 acres (5.4 sq km). The climate is generally tropical. The hurricane season is from June to November, but they are most common in September. The Caribbean has fewer hurricanes than the western Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Taino natives were dominant throughout the Caribbean until the development of the region by Europeans. The first European to enter the Caribbean was Christopher Columbus, who landed in the Bahamas in 1492. Desecheo appears on a map prepared by Columbus' cartographer in 1500; Columbus reportedly landed on Navassa in 1504. In the early 19th century, bird droppings, or "guano," came to be prized as an agricultural fertilizer. In 1855, the U.S. learned of rich guano deposits on islands in the Pacific Ocean. Congress passed the Guano Islands Act of 1856 to take advantage of these deposits. The act specifically allowed the islands to be considered a possession of the U.S., but it also provided that the U.S. was not obliged to retain possession after the guano supply was exhausted.

Prior to the adoption of The Guano Islands Act, any territory acquired by the U.S. was considered to have become an integral part of the country's territory unless changed by treaty. More than 50 islands were eventually claimed by the U.S. under this insular scheme, including Desecheo and Navassa. In addition to Navassa, those remaining under U.S. control are Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Kingman Reef, Johnston Atoll, and Midway Atoll. The U.S. Department of the Interior managed Desecheo and Navassa for many years before assigning those responsibilities to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ("FWS") when the islands became national wildlife refuges.

Desecheo Island

Desecheo is a small, mountainous island in the Mona Channel, approximately 14 miles or 21 km west of Punta Higüero, Puerto Rico. The island lies outside the 100 fathom depth boundary used to define the Puerto Rican Bank. However, it's considered to be part of the Río Culebrinas Formation, which extends from Desecheo through northwestern Puerto Rico, indicating that the two islands were connected at one time. Desecheo Island.

Although the Taino Indians named the island, there is no evidence of habitation on Desecheo. Early naturalists reported it to be a major rookery for seabirds, resulting in its being set aside as a preserve and breeding ground by President Taft in 1912. Despite this protected status, Desecheo has been subject to considerable disturbance and modification. In the 1920's farming was attempted. There is no information as to the length of time that the settlers were on the island, but their impact is noteworthy. Cattle were pastured in Long Valley and the mouths of both West and Long Valleys were dammed to trap water. The forest on the southwest part of the island was cleared for cropland and the red-footed booby rookery was displaced about 500 feet to the east. The former cultivated area reverted to grassland that was maintained by visiting fishermen, who burned it periodically to maintain it as land crab habitat.

In 1937 President Roosevelt transferred the island to the insular government of Puerto Rico for use as a forest and bird preserve. With the out-break of World War II, the island was transferred back to the federal government for use as a bombing and gunnery range. It was used as such until 1952. Between 1952 and 1964 Desecheo was used for survival training by the U.S. Air Force. In 1965 the island was declared as surplus property by the military, and in July 1966 it was acquired by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, under whose direction a colony of rhesus macaques was introduced in 1967. In December 1976, Desecheo was transferred back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is now responsible for its management as a wildlife refuge. FWS personnel have hiked Desecheo extensively since the 1970s and frequently camp on the island.

Navassa Island

Navassa was the site of a major Guano mining operation for many years, the remains of which are still obvious, including evidence of quarrying, railroad tracks, and an old transfer station. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, shipping in the passage between Cuba and Haiti greatly increased. The U.S. Lighthouse Service built a 162 foot light-tower (NAV001) on the island in 1917, 395 feet above sea level. A keeper and two assistants were assigned to live there until the U.S. Lighthouse Service installed an automatic beacon in 1929. After absorbing the Lighthouse Service in 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard serviced the light twice each year. Navassa Island.

The U.S. Navy set up an observation post for the duration of World War II. The island has been inhabited for years by illegal aliens from Haiti, fishermen who live on the island seasonally. The light was shut down in 1996 and the administration of Navassa Island transferred from the Coast Guard to the Department of the Interior. Navassa became a National Wildlife Refuge in 1999. According to FWS internal records, Navassa is among the most pristine marine habitats in the world.

For comments or questions please contact: Mike Thomas.