The Swan Islands, with their rocky shores, cliffs, sandy beaches, coral reefs, marine biota, and islanders like the late Spencer Bennett, hold a prominent place in the hearts of many individuals who have spent time there.
Consisting of a chain of three small islands–Great Swan, Little Swan, and Booby Cay-the Swan Islands are located in the northwestern Caribbean about 95 miles off the coast of mainland Honduras. Great Swan is just under two miles long and a little more than a half-mile wide with a maximum elevation of only about 68 feet. While Little Swan is only slightly smaller than Great Swan, Booby Cay is about the size of a football field and accessible at low tide by wading from Great Swan. Coral reefs fringe the margins of the islands with the best reef development occurring along the northern shores.
Though their name suggests it, no swans inhabit the islands. It is reported that Captain Swan was sent to the Caribbean by London merchants with a cargo to sell in 1680, but his ship was attacked by pirates. The story goes that he was forced to join the pirates and may have been one of the buccaneers who roamed the islands. The islands were originally called Islas de las Pozas by Columbus who visited them in 1502 but were renamed after Captain Swan.
I was first introduced to the Swan Islands in 1972 by one of my marine biology students who had been stationed on Great Swan with the U.S. Weather Service and who thought the islands would be a good place to take students to study marine biology. Intrigued, two other professors and I hopped a ride on the Cayman Airways DC-3 that made a bi-monthly trip from Grand Cayman to Great Swan to bring mail and supplies to the weather station personnel. After we touched down with hardly a bump and disembarked, the sea air was warm and aromatic but humid. A truck-load of islanders and the weather station operations chief greeted us and helped transport our gear to the barracks–a screened-in front porch with several tables. On the tables were treasures collected by weather station personnel–queen conchs, pieces of coral, and a number of large, green glass balls with netting on them. These balls are used as floats for fishing nets and apparently get detached and drift onto the beach.
A friendly islander, Spencer Bennett, showed us around the compound. He was a long-time resident employed by the weather service, knew every inch of the island and had a wealth of knowledge about the biota. Mr. Bennett maintained the large diesel generator which supplied the island’s electricity.
The weather station had good facilities which included an air-conditioned building with a galley, tables, and lounge, along with a Chinese cook to prepare meals. A large concrete building contained instrumentation and radio equipment used for tracking hurricanes. The remains of this structure are currently used by the Honduran military personnel who stay on the island. Radar was housed in a tall dome near a facility where weather balloons were launched. Other small buildings housed diving equipment, desks used by faculty or students and a ham radio.
In 1973, the Swan Islands’ population consisted of five weather station personnel and five islander families of Honduran and Caymanian descent who lived in frame houses outside the compound in a settlement they called Gliddentown. One evening, Spencer invited the three professors to join the islanders at the “Iggy Bar” for a lobster dinner which definitely sounded more interesting than the station’s mess-hall. When we arrived, enormous lobsters were pulled out of large boiling cans and placed on platters with bowls of melted butter and piles of fried bananas.
Great Swan had lush pockets of coconut palms and fruit trees, probably the last remains of the fruit plantations, as well as an area of banana and mango trees. Bennett, who had an orchard and a herd of cattle that roamed the island, taught us much about the flora on the island, pointing out a Manchineel tree, one of the most poisonous trees in the world. We were warned to not stand under the tree during a rainstorm because the milky-colored sap would raise blisters on your skin. I spent much of my time studying the coral reefs and the abundant shallow-water invertebrates and was able to identify 32 species of crabs from the Swan Islands.
As for the original inhabitants of the islands, several Cayman Islanders apparently occupied the islands in the middle 1800s. According to Greg Robins, who has compiled historical tidbits on the Swan Islands, Cayman Islander Samuel Parsons attempted to claim the islands by putting goats on them. In his absence, however, an American phosphate company moved in with miners who ate the goats. In 1857, John White discovered that the islands were rich in guano deposits (due to the brown boobie bird population) and filed a claim with the U.S. State Department. The islands then changed hands several times as rights were transferred to several different American guano mining companies, who left behind guano pits.
By around 1900 Alonzo Adams had claimed the Swan Islands and conveyed his rights to the Swan Island Commercial Company, who then leased part of Great Swan to the United Fruit Company which planted but later abandoned thousands of coconut palms. Hurricane Janet devastated the islands in 1955, wiping out most of the coconut palms. A stone marker still existed during my 1970’s visit that read “Boundary of property leased to United Fruit Company, Dec. 10, 1912.”
The Swan Island Commercial Company provided weather information for hurricanes from 1928 until 1932. Six years later in 1938, the U.S. Weather Bureau established a part-time weather station on Great Swan manned only during hurricane seasons until the 1940s when it became a year-round operation. Then in 1946 an aircraft radio-navigation beacon was installed and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) until 1971.
While Clyde Hall, a weather service employee, was stationed on Great Swan in the early 1960s, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship Explorer came to take a census of the island occupants. There were 28 people living on the island including 19 Caymanians, 3 Hondurans, and 6 U.S. citizens attached either to the Weather Service or the FAA radio station. A 50,000 watt radio station built at this time became known as “Radio Swan” and broadcasted anti-Castro propaganda in Spanish. The station was reported to be owned by a New York Firm, the Gibraltar Steamship Company, which apparently did not operate steamships. Most indications are that this was a CIA operation. The station changed to Radio Americas near the end of 1961 with headquarters in Miami, and continued broadcasting from Swan until 1968.
Right after Radio Swan was built a group of university students from Honduras came to protest the census. This event grew into an annual affair for many years which protested the possession of the islands by the U.S. In his entertaining article, “Swan Island, Visitors Unwelcome,” J. Craig, the highest-ranking federal employee on the island in the 1960s, tells of a student invasion while he was there. Being new to the islands and “in charge,” he was about to call Miami for advice about a supposed “impending invasion” when he learned that each year the students would get drunk, invade the island, and after a big party on the dock would leave the next morning. He put the word out that no one was to go near the dock for 24 hours. He heard small arms fire from the dock all night, but no one was hurt and the students sailed home the next morning. In one invasion the students raised a Honduran flag on the island; in other cases invasions ended up in a big party with the island personnel.
The dispute over the Swan Islands had been ongoing since Honduras laid claim to them in the 1920s, but the issue was not pressed until the 1960s. Honduras said that when Columbus stopped to gather wood from the islands in 1502, that made the islands part of the Spanish Colonial Empire, so Honduras was the rightful heir. The U.S had claimed the islands based on the Guano Act of 1856, which allowed U.S. citizens to apply for certificates to collect guano on unclaimed islands to sell for fertilizer. The U.S. said that American George White, who began commercially exporting guano in 1858, had landed on Great Swan and claimed the islands for the U.S. in 1857. This allowed Secretary of State William Seward to claim the Swan Islands for the U.S. in 1863.
In 1970 the federal judge ruled in favor of the U.S., which cleared the way for the U.S. to transfer sovereignty of the islands to Honduras as a gesture of goodwill. The treaty was signed in 1971 and ratified by the U.S. Congress in 1972. A flag-transfer ceremony was held on Great Swan on September 1 of that year. The U.S. National Weather Service station on Great Swan, which played a key role in forecasting and tracking hurricanes potentially affecting Central America and the Gulf Coast, was allowed to continue operating the weather station. Subsequent development of weather satellites lessened the importance of the Swan Island weather facility.
During a storm December 10, 1974, a Honduran fishing vessel with 19 crewmen 20 miles off the coast of Great Swan received damage to the hull of their vessel and started to sink. They radioed the weather facility on Swan for help and two permanent inhabitants of the island, Spencer Bennett and Randolph Moore, took two outboard motor-boats, found the men floating in dugout canoes, towed them to Great Swan. They were given the Gold Metal Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for risking their lives to save the 19 crewmen.
In 1980 things apparently changed on Great Swan. Reports are that the CIA used the island as a training facility for Nicaraguan contras. This must have been about the time that the National Weather Service left. When Don Wilson, a weather service employee, spent a four-week stay on Swan in 1993, he knew of only one semi-permanent occupant at that time who came to look after the cattle. There were 12 Honduran soldiers and a detachment of about 35 U.S. Air National Guard. Mr. Wilson said a C-131 made regular trips to the island to rotate and provide support for the personnel.
On the evening of October 26, 1998, the eye of Hurricane Mitch, a category five hurricane with 180 mph winds, moved over the Swan Islands. It devastated almost everything, destroying the old Weather Service and Radio Americas facilities, except a few cement structure left standing.
The most recent visit to Great Swan other than by the Honduran military seems to have been a Radio Club stay in 2008. The group spent five days on the island to transmit but did not leave a permanent station. From their reports, the islands’ fruit trees have all disappeared. Also decimated were the islands’ population of white-banded hutias and a population of unidentified large rodents resembling thin guinea pigs, which were of great interest to mammalogists. These mammals were wiped out by both Hurricane Janet and housecats which escaped and became wild.
These feral cats, along with soldiers, are also thought to have caused the disappearance of Swan Islands’ abundant iguana population. During my stay in the 1970s, iguanas between 4 and 5 feet were not an uncommon sight, though wounds from the feral cats on those iguanas were also not uncommon. Craig tells of a Scottish gentleman who visited the island in the early 1960s representing National Geographic who was especially interested in the large iguanas on the Swan Island. Though iguanas had been reported to be 5 feet or more in length in the Swan Islands, he had come to prove that iguanas did not grow that large. When some of the personnel showed him pictures, the National Geographic journalist accused them of trick photography. As it turns out, when he came back from Little Swan he had 16 mm movies of iguanas estimated to be around 7 feet in length, including a movie caught by Craig of the Scotsman running from an iguana when he fell into a hole in the coral that had been covered with vegetation. He broke his leg in two places and was flown out the next day.
I am glad I did not see iguanas that large during my hikes on Little Swan. But I’m saddened to know that the opportunity to see Swan Islands’ large iguanas has apparently vanished. I had rather remember the island as it was when I walked its shorelines. On one of those walks, I spotted the neck of a green glass bottle partially protruding from the sand. As I leaned down to pull it out of the sand, I could see that it was a wine bottle with a piece of paper folded lengthwise inside. I removed the cork and shook out the paper to see a note written in Russian on a radiogram. Penned by a radio operator on the fishing ship Robert Ache, it was basically a “Happy New Year” greeting which wished the best to all his comrades.