ABOARD the GRAND PRINCESS – During four days at sea en route to Hawai’i, there is time to contemplate the oldest of the world’s seas, the Pacific Ocean, and the place of the Hawaiian Islands in it. Ranger John, former national parks employee, is onboard to help with a seminar entitled “Think Hawaiian Geology is Boring? No Way Baby, It’s Explosive.”
It’s commonly known that the islands of the mid-Pacific are the result of volcanic action, the eight Hawaiian Islands being the best known. Unlike the Galapagos, Aleutians, and the volcanic islands on the western Pacific Rim, such as those of Japan and Indonesia that are on the edges of the tectonic Pacific Plate, the Hawaiian Islands lie in the middle of the plate. Over millennia, as this Pacific plate has moved northwesterly, a hot spot venting magma from the earth’s crust has successively produced a string of islands both below and above sea level from Midway to the most southeasterly above water, the Big Island of Hawai’i.
When we drive about on the Big Island in a few days, I’ll cover two significant features of the island, Kilauea – one of the world’s most spectacular active volcanoes — and the world’s tallest mountain from base to summit, Mauna Loa, at 30,085 feet, greater than the 29,029 feet elevation of Mount Everest from sea level to its summit.
Certainly the Pacific Ocean is vast — 60 million square miles. All of the earth’s continents could fit within its borders with room to spare. It can look black as India ink on a starless night, or ultramarine blue endlessly sparkling in the tropical sun. The largest and deepest ocean on earth; it is a watery wilderness dotted with specks of land that are the most isolated lands on the planet.
The islands of the mid-Pacific are barren desert, so remote that no life would have survived on them absent coconuts that floated from island-to-island providing sustenance for the few animals that were able to reach the islands over time.
Those animals that do inhabit the Pacific’s islands, such as spiders and geckos, have mostly been blown there by the wind. With half the world’s cyclones, some as wide as 800 kilometers, the opportunities for animals to become castaways are frequent (e.g., the geckos in Hawai’i originated in New Zealand.)
Sixty-two seabird species regularly use the tropical Pacific. Among them, the albatross is capable of flying 10,000 kilometers, while others can fly for four years and return to land only to breed. Millions of those seabirds in the central Pacific can be found congregating on the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Below the water’s surface, life is abundant in even the most desolate parts of the Pacific. At dusk, squid – more abundant than fish – come up from the depths and descend into the abyss at dawn. A voracious predator, squid can weigh up to 110 pounds and reach more than six feet in length. As they increase in numbers due to changes in climate, they are migrating from tropical waters to more northern latitudes, causing fishermen to worry that they will soon diminish valuable fish stocks.
Squid have their own predators to worry about as whales can dive to great depths to catch them. Fortunately for squid, sperm whales are only a threat when they come to the tropics every fifteen years to breed.
In his epic book, Pacific, The Ocean of the Future, prolific author Simon Winchester recounts the many theories of how the Hawaiian Islands, located in great distance from islands in the west, were reached and settled.
The islands of the Pacific were not populated until expert seafarers and navigators of the Lapita culture began reaching out into the vast expanses of the empty ocean to find them 2,000 years ago. Descendants of people from the mainland of South China 8,000 years ago, the Lapita were the ancestors of today’s Micronesians and Melanesians, and the Polynesians who settled the triangle of islands from New Zealand (Aotearoa) to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) to the Hawaiian Islands in ancient double-hulled canoes using traditional voyaging techniques.
Without the use of any technical devises, the ancestors of Polynesians, the Tahitians, were able to travel thousands of miles by observing the sea, the stars, and passing birds and fish. In 1769, Captain James Cook was astounded when a priest in Tahiti drew a map of the ocean extending two thousand miles showing all the major island groups including Fiji, Tonga, and the Marquesas. Since the skeptical Cook had not discovered most of these islands himself, he believed that islands as far away as Easter Island and the Hawaiian group must have been reached by Tahitians drifting accidentally with the currents and winds and not by design.
Navigating skills practiced by Polynesians for hundreds of years were integral to their culture and celebrated in sagas, songs, and poetry. All travel within the Polynesian triangle – an area the size of North and South America combined — relied on the knowledge handed down orally from the experience of ancient elders. Yet the skills vanished suddenly when incoming Westerners banned inter-island voyages in canoes. Determined to be too dangerous for the informal and unstructured Polynesians to continue, the skills of the navigators became a casualty of the belief of the new European masters in their racial superiority.
Those skilled Polynesians sailing from Tahiti were the first to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands in about 700 AD. Today only 126 pure Polynesian-Hawaiians remain. The 10% of the population that are considered native Hawaiians are a mix of Polynesian with Americans who came in 1820, Chinese in 1852, Japanese in 1868, and others later on including Portuguese, Samoans, and Puerto Ricans. Hawai’i is a melting pot of all these diverse people that get along amicably by practicing the Ways of Aloha, which I will explain later.
Dennis Cox is All Things Cruise Writer and Official Photographer (©Dennis Cox/WorldViews)