Baker Island Light

United States Minor Possessions – Pacific Ocean

Kingman Reef Location
Kingman Reef Location

The reef encloses a lagoon up to 270 feet deep in its western part.  The total area within the outer rim of the reef is 29 square miles.  There are two small strips of dry land composed of coral rubble and giant clamshells on the eastern rim with areas of 2 and 1 acre having a coastline of 2 miles.  The highest point on the reef is less than 5 feet above sea level, which is wetted or awash most of the time, making Kingman Reef a maritime hazard.  It has no natural resources and supports no economic activity.

Political Status:

Kingman Reef has the status of an unincorporated territory of the United States, administered from Washington, D.C. by the U.S. Department of Interior.  The atoll is closed to the public.  In January 2009, Kingman Reef was designated a marine national monument.


Kingman Reef was discovered by the American Captain Edmund Fanning of the ship Betsey on June 14, 1798.  Captain W. E. Kingman described it on November 29, 1853.  Kingman Reef was claimed in 1860 by the United States Guano Company, under the name “Danger Reef”.  This claim was made under by the Guano Islands Act of 1856 although there is no evidence that guano existed or was ever mined on Kingman Reef.

On December 29, 1934, the US Navy assumed jurisdiction over Kingman Reef.  The lagoon was used in 1937 and 1938 as a halfway station between Hawai’i and American Samoa by Pan American Airways flying boats (Sikorsky S-42B).  Pan Am wanted to expand flights into the Pacific and include Australia and New Zealand to their “Clipper” air routes.  In 1935 it was decided that the lagoon at Kingman Reef was suitable for overnight stops en-route from the U.S. to New Zealand via Samoa.  Kingman Reef became the stopover to and from Pago Pago, American Samoa, located 1,600 miles further south.  A supply ship, the North Wind, was stationed at Kingman Reef to provide fuel, lodging, and meals.  The S42B Pan American Clipper II, piloted by Captain Edwin Musick, landed at Kingman on its first flight on March 23, 1937.  Several successful flights followed, but the flight on January 11, 1938 ended in tragedy.  Shortly after the early morning take off from Pago Pago, bound for New Zealand, the Clipper exploded.  The right outboard engine had developed an oil leak and the plane burst into flames while dumping fuel; there were no survivors.  As a result of the tragedy, Pan Am ended flights to New Zealand via Kingman Reef and Pago Pago.  A new route was established in July 1940 by way of Canton Island and New Caledonia.

Dry Strip of Land on Kingman Reef
Dry Strip of Land on Kingman Reef

On February 14, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8682 to create naval defenses areas in the central Pacific territories.  The proclamation established “Kingman Reef Naval Defensive Sea Area” which encompassed the territorial waters between the extreme high-water marks and the three-mile marine boundaries surrounding the atoll.  “Kingman Naval Airspace Reservation” was also established to restrict access to the airspace over the naval defense sea area.  Only U.S. government ships and aircraft were permitted to enter the naval defense areas at Kingman Reef unless authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.


Kingman Reef supports a vast variety of marine life.  Giant clams are abundant in the shallows, and there are approximately 38 genera and 130 species of stony corals present on the reef.  This is more than three times the species diversity of corals found in the main Hawaiian Islands.  The ecosystem of the reef and its subsequent food chain are known for the distinct quality of being primarily predator-based.  The percentage of the total fish biomass on the reef is made up of 85% apex predators, creating a high level of competition for food and nutrients among local organisms — particularly sharks, jacks, and other carnivores.  The threatened green sea turtles that frequent nearby Palmyra Atoll travel to Kingman Reef to forage and bask on the coral rubble spits at low tide.

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