The Pacific: Introduction

The Pacific

The Pacific, greatest of oceans, has an area exceeding that of all dry land on the planet. Herman Melville called it "the tide-beating heart of earth." Covering almost a third of the planet's surface—as much as the Atlantic, Indian, and Arctic oceans combined—it's the largest geographical feature in the world. Its awesome 155 million square km (up to 16,000 km wide and 11,000 km long) have an average depth of around 4,000 meters. Half the world's liquid water is stored here. You could drop the entire dry landmass of our planet into the Pacific and still have room for another continent the size of Asia. One theory claims the moon may have been flung from the Pacific while the world was still young.

The liquid continent of Oceania is divided between Melanesia, several chains of relatively large, mountainous land masses, and Polynesia, scattered groups of volcanic and coral islands. North of the equator are the coral and volcanic islands of Micronesia. This continent of islands has a character as distinct from the rest of the world as Africa or Europe.

It's believed that, in all, some 30,000 islands dot the Pacific basin—four times more than are found in all other oceans and seas combined. Of the 7,500 islands in the South Pacific, only 500 are inhabited. Something about those islands has always fascinated humans and made them want to learn what's there. Each one is a cosmos with a character of its own. This website is about some of those islands.

Polynesia

The Polynesian triangle between Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island stretches 8,000 km across the central Pacific Ocean—a fifth of the earth's surface. Since the late 18th century, when Captain Cook first revealed Polynesia to European eyes, artists and writers have sung the praises of the graceful peoples of the "many islands." While there's homogeneity in Polynesia, there are also striking contrasts resulting from a history of American, Chilean, French, and New Zealand colonial rule.

Polynesia consists of boundless ocean and little land. This vast region is divided into two cultural areas, Western Polynesia (Tonga and Samoa) and Eastern Polynesia (Hawaii, Easter Island, French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand). Of the insular Polynesian entities, only French Polynesia and Samoa are larger than 1,000 square km, though both the Cook Islands and French Polynesia control sea areas well above a million square km.

Seasonal differences in airfares should be more influential in deciding when to go. On flights from North America the low season is May to August, the prime time in Fiji. Christmas is busy but in February and March many hotels stand half empty and special discounted rates are on offer. In short, there isn't really any one travel season and every part of the year has its advantages.

Only French Polynesia, Tonga, and Samoa have populations of more than 100,000; American Samoa has nearly 70,000: while the Cook Islands, Easter Island, Niue, Pitcairn, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Wallis and Futuna all have less than 20,000 inhabitants. The mainly subsistence economies have inspired many Polynesians to emigrate to the Pacific rim: there are now more Samoans in the United States than in American Samoa itself, and more Cook Islanders in New Zealand than in their homeland. Only three Polynesian states are fully independent: Tonga, Samoa, and Tuvalu. All the rest still have legal ties to some outside power.

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Melanesia

Named for its "black" inhabitants, Melanesia encompasses the hulking island chains of the Western Pacific from Fiji to New Guinea. A tremendous variety of cultures, peoples, languages, and attractions make up this relatively large region of mountainous islands. Prior to European colonization in the late 19th century, the 900 linguistic groups of Melanesia had little contact with one another, and unlike Polynesia, this was a largely classless society. Today parts of New Caledonia are as cosmopolitan as southern France, but on the outer islands of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands people cling to their traditional ways. Custom and land ownership are intense issues everywhere.

Compared to Polynesia, the populations and islands of Melanesia are large. Densely populated Fiji is equal in inhabitants to New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands combined, yet in land area both New Caledonia and Solomon Islands are bigger than Fiji. In Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, Melanesians still comprise the overwhelming majority of the population and few foreigners are seen outside the capitals, but in Fiji and New Caledonia, British and French colonialism introduced new ethnic groups leading to political instability. During WW II northern Melanesia became a pivotal battlefield. Today all of the countries of Melanesia except New Caledonia are independent.