Pacific panorama

Giovanna Fasanelli | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 6
The mysterious stone-faced guardians of Easter Island’s Ahn Tongariki
Postcard-perfect islands, amazing dive sites and monolithic mysteries lure adventurous explorers.

The mighty Pacific Ocean … at its deepest limit lies the abyssal, gaping crevice of the Earth’s surface, the Marianas Trench, a staggering 11,000m down. Bathing in its turquoise, sunlit shallows lie the submerged tips of ancient volcanos overgrown by thousands of years of colonisation by countless microscopic coral polyps. These coral kingdoms showcase some of the planet’s most resplendent, vibrant and dynamic ecosystems, where the variety of biological life reaches heights of ineffable beauty and breathtaking abundance.

By far the largest of the ocean basins, the sheer size and grandeur of the Pacific cannot be overstated. The collective landmass of our earthen world could fit quite happily within its glistening blue boundaries, leaving several million square kilometres to spare.

Join me on an odyssey, much truncated, across the Pacific Ocean, incorporating my work as the marine biology lecturer and dive master aboard several expedition vessels bent on remote exploration and exciting discovery.

VAST EXPANSE

The Pacific Ocean is best characterised by its incredible suite of archipelagos, comprising almost 30,000 islands. They’re grouped into three broad regions: Micronesia, in the western Pacific, north of the Equator; Melanesia, comprising the great island of New Guinea, the Solomons, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji; and Polynesia, which extends over a vast area in the central and southern reaches of the Pacific from Tonga to Easter Island.

Humans arrived upon these chunks of reef and rock around 3000 years ago and learnt to thrive in a new and challenging landscape. Here, man and sea have forged an inseparable relationship that has spanned the millennia and yielded the most remarkable tales and traditions.

During a journey that spans some 13,000km (that’s over three and a half times the diameter of the moon) selecting highlights is a seemingly impossible task … but, to be fair, some islands held more magic and intrigue than others.

Yap is a small island state, one of four belonging to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), situated within the Caroline Island chain of the western Pacific. Apart from being a wonderful place to play with manta rays and sharks, it is renowned for a unique and bizarre form of currency known as Rai. These doughnut-shaped stone disks measure some 12ft in diameter, weigh around four tonnes, and were carved out of ancient limestone from islands as far away as New Guinea. Most, however, originated from the archipelago of Palau, some 400km to the southwest.

The degree of hardship, peril and loss of life involved in the quarrying and sailing of these megaliths back to Yap on rafts and outrigger canoes determined their trading value. Many of the giant stones, shaped using modest shell tools, have never been moved from their initial resting place, and local stories tell of at least one carefully quarried stone being lost to the sea on the return voyage. It still has a rightful owner who knows very well its modern worth, as is the case with all of these ancient coins. The transfer of ownership is as simple as publicly declaring a new owner. Everyone knows who owns what and, although US dollars are today’s currency, this famed stone money is still used in traditional trading during important community ceremonies, such as marriage, political alliances, the settling of debts, and inheritance.

SUNKEN ARMIES AND CITIES

Some 1500km further to the east lies Chuuk, known also as Truk, another of the FSM’s four states. Wreck divers would have heard of this underwater mecca, for this atoll’s huge lagoon was the site of Operation Hailstone, considered Japan’s version of Pearl Harbour.

Chuuk served as a logistical centre and home base for the Japanese Imperial Fleet during WWII until, on February 16, 1944, the US Navy launched a two-day attack that sent more than 100 ships, planes and submarines to their watery graves. These wrecks remain as an official underwater war memorial commemorating the largest naval loss in history. Today, eager divers float in awe of the colourful life forms that make their homes on these arthritic, rusting skeletons of war.

Navigating ever eastwards through silken seas, flying fish erupting and scattering about, mystery and wonder thicken like the storm clouds that gather the sun’s setting hues. There’s something utterly intoxicating to the adventurous heart when all around is wild, open ocean, with a destination unseen and unknown ahead. It’s a vision of unfettered freedom.

After a few days of this delicious endlessness, the beautiful Senyavin Islands came into view, amongst them the famous island of Pohnpei. Also called the ‘Venice of the Pacific’, the history of these islands runs deep, with chapters of colonisation spanning the eons since people first moved into the region. Arguably the most interesting chapter revolves around the ruins of Nan Madol, the ancient capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty, which is believed to have risen over 1000 years ago.

Lying adjacent to the shore of Temwen, an islet off Pohnpei’s eastern edge, this intriguing complex of almost a hundred stone platforms, crisscrossed by a series of tidal canals, served as the ceremonial and political seat for a succession of noble chieftains and priests who presided over a population of almost 30,000, until their overthrow in the early 17th century. Wandering quietly around the overgrown pillars of stone, one can’t help but ponder just how this 750,000-ton empire of black basaltic rock was erected entirely over open water, and how this mystical kingdom rose and fell from glory, eventually abandoning these indefatigable walls.

Taking a southerly turn, leaving the archipelagos north of the Equator in our wake, we entered the rich and beautiful world of Melanesia. There are abundant reasons to visit any one of the island nations in this region, but Fiji is a particularly gorgeous and convenient stop on the route. Its marine life overflows in beauty and abundance, its waters are warm and clear, soothing beach resorts abound, and smiling locals adorn visitors with garlands of frangipani and hibiscus. Utterly idyllic!

POLYNESIAN SOJOURN

But, with Easter Island as our beacon, it was into the great blue expanse of Polynesia we headed, making our first stop the welcoming Kingdom of Tonga.

One of the most alluring drawcards to this island group – apart from the sweet fruit platters and the even sweeter grass-skirt-shaking local dancers – are the excellent opportunities for snorkelling with humpback whales. They are everywhere during the calving season, from late July to late October. On one memorable occasion, after surfacing from a dive during which we had been serenaded by the melodious and hypnotic song of a nearby whale, we watched in awe as a vociferous individual erupted out of the ocean a mere stone’s throw away, his behemoth, pied form twisting in the sun before crashing back into the sea, sending upside-down waterfalls cascading into the air.

Among the most scenic and alluring of all island groups are the Cook Islands. Here, crescents of powdery white sand, verdant green coconut palms and impossibly turquoise shallow seas meld together to create dreamlike, postcard-perfect landscapes. The further eastward from Indonesia one sails, the lower the marine biodiversity – but what the Cook Islands lack in variety, they more than compensate in sheer numbers.

Snorkelling is a great deal of fun here, and if kite surfing is your thing you’ll enjoy awesome conditions. The general order of the day in this sun-drenched paradise is ‘chillaxing’!

As our vessel entered the Society Island chain, islands began popping up with increasing regularity. Soon enough, beautiful Bora Bora loomed on the horizon, its high, black volcanic peak creating a visual feast for eyes accustomed to low-lying atolls. Here, the purchasing of pearls is, quite frankly, expected, while the accommodation on offer is a honeymooner’s idea of perfection: wooden cabins with see-through flooring allow appreciation of the coral below and the turquoise lagoon beyond. A Bloody Mary cocktail at Bloody Mary’s bar is not to be missed, especially after a dive with spotted eagle rays.

But for peak marine adrenalin, nothing beats Rangiroa in the Tuamotus group. Expect fast currents and reef walls that drop off into the cobalt abyss, with plentiful large fish, rays, sharks and schools of playful dolphins.

Turning the wheel and setting the target destination for the Marquesas Islands – a good two day’s steam to the northeast – is where this adventure gets really exciting. A remote and beautiful volcanic archipelago, the Marquesas Islands are as far from any continent as one can get on an island, but the people are no less welcoming. Our diving suffered deplorable visibility, but through the murk swooshed great schools of curious fish, while scalloped hammerheads patrolled the jagged edges of the island’s bedrock.

Age-old customs of dance and storytelling enthralled us as we listened to the hypnotic drumming and warrior-like roaring of the tattooed performers. There was an ancient and untouched atmosphere about the place, with steep cliffs, tumbling waterfalls and tiki statues adorning lush gardens filled with fruiting trees and fragrant flowers. After three days of exploration, our farewell came in the form of a thrilling hour’s snorkel session with over 50 giant manta rays, hungrily feeding upon thick, soupy clouds of plankton.

Pitcairn is the end point of the incredible tale of mutiny on the Bounty. Christian Fletcher, the mutineer who led the dissident band of sailors that destroyed their ship so as to leave no trace of their whereabouts, chose this speck of land for its remoteness and its fearsome shoreline that’s perpetually battered by angry swells. Half the adventure is getting on and off the island but, once ashore, be prepared to be welcomed by the warm and charismatic locals, some of whom are direct descendants of the mutineers.

LOST CIVILISATION

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is natively known, stands as a great testament to the navigational skills of the Polynesians. For reasons unknown, these ancient seafarers persisted in their quest for new lands and set sail into the endless blue, not knowing whether their gamble would reward or punish them. As it turned out, once making landfall on this fertile, volcanic outcrop, their story took many twists and turns. Great palm forests originally blanketed the land, providing all the wood they desired for building fires, boats and houses.

By the 16th century, the island’s population had climbed towards 10,000, precipitating the formation of separate clans. They were unified by their curious obsession with carving huge stone statues, the moai, which they believed represented the living faces of their ancestors. The methods of extraction, carving and erection are fascinating, as some of these statues are enormous and found many miles from the quarry site. The resources used to transport them down to the coast is believed to have led the people into catastrophic demise, where all the trees were plundered, along with any means of sustainable survival, ultimately leading to great civil conflict.

What followed was a transition into a new and bizarre spiritual philosophy, known as the Birdman Cult, which coincided with the arrival of the first Europeans in the 1700s. Soon enough, slavers and missionaries found the island, forever altering Rapa Nui’s story. Today, the charismatic island stands as a fascinating open-air museum and one of the great archaeological mysteries of the world.

Flying home from Easter Island towards Santiago, on the South American mainland, over yet more miles of endless blue gave pause for stirring reflection. There are few places on Earth where such a wild and unforgiving world has been so adaptively embraced and conquered by humans. The Pacific, for all its vastness, has been colourfully colonised despite being dominated by seawater and its dramatically isolated island refugia.

My advice: don’t just take my word for it. Get a map of the Pacific Ocean, close your eyes and see where your finger lands. Then ask yourself why not?


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