There be spice in them thar Indies

In the spice race of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Portuguese were miles ahead of everyone else. Their ships sailed south from Lisbon and plied the waters of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, making the perilous trip around the storm-lashed Cape of Good Hope. Others decided that the world might not be flat after all and headed west across the Atlantic. Having discovered that the West Indies weren't quite the Indies they'd been looking for, the great maritime powers sought new routes to the fabled riches of the East which were believed to be not far beyond the west coast of the newly-discovered Americas. As they were to find out, one ocean remained to be sailed. The biggest of them all.

While the Portuguese were the first beneficiaries of the new ocean trade with southern and eastern Asia, the Spanish were far from idle and, by 1519, had laid their greedy mitts on a sizeable chunk of the Caribbean as well as the Central American mainland. It would remain more economical and profitable to avoid the hazards of overland shipping across Mexico when that became an option, and the inhospitable swamps of Panama were a death trap, as Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, first European to see the ocean from the east in 1513, had found out, so the sea was the obvious way to go.

Nobody had yet envisaged or dared the north-west passage (it would almost a hundred years before someone would try) so the obvious route to circumnavigate the American continent and access the unknown ocean was from the south. How far south, nobody knew for sure. Someone had to go and find out. Incidentally, Balboa claimed all lands touching the "south sea," as he tritely named it, for the Spanish crown, so Japan and Russia can quit fighting over the Kuril and Sakhalin Islands and let Spain have them...

To get the job done and be first past the post, the Spanish did what every ambitious team would have done: they recruited the opposition's talent. On 1519-06-20 Fernando de Magalhães, a disgruntled Portuguese captain commissioned by the King of Spain after being shunned by his own monarch, hoisted the Spanish colours and sailed off into the history books. The mission: to discover the western route to the real Indies. The equipment: 270 men (who had no idea what the mission was) on five ships. Three of the ships survived the savage south Atlantic and, after failing to brave the wild weather of Cape Horn, found their way between the southern tip of mainland south America and the northern coast of Tierra del Fuego, through the strait that now bears the explorer's name.

On 1520-11-28, after 38 days of hard sailing through the strait, they made it into "a beautiful, peaceful ocean." I suppose anything would have looked tranquil after Cape Horn. El Oceano Pacifico, the Pacific Ocean, became a name on the maps of European navigators. It may be a misnomer but the sailors of the time believed in euphemisms like that and probably kept it as a charm. And this is what they had found:

A lot of ocean. No, seriously, a LOT.

The Pacific Ocean is by far the largest of the world's oceans. At 155 million km² (61 million mi²) it covers 28% of the planet's surface, more than all landmasses combined. Clearly defined to the east by the American coast, to the north-west by the Asian mainland and in the south-west by Australia and an imaginary line drawn south from Tasmania to Antarctica, its west-central edge is fuzzy and more a matter of definition for classification's sake that an actual boundary. For this purpose the strait of Malacca and the island chain that includes Java and Sumatra are taken as its westernmost point. The ocean stretches across over 120 degrees of latitude, its northern boundary being the Bering Strait and its southern reaches ending at latitude 60°S. This southern boundary with the Southern Ocean is man-made and purely administrative, and was not established until 2000. It subtracts about 10 million km² from the Pacific, otherwise its southern end would stretch under the Ross Ice Shelf.

From west to east and at its widest at 5°N the Pacific stretches 19,800 km (12,300 miles) across the globe--that's halfway around the world. Over 30,000 islands are scattered across it, almost all in the western third and very few elsewhere. The total coastline of the land bordering it is approximately 135,000 km (84,000 miles). At its deepest, in the Marianas Trench, solid ground can be found only by heading straight down for 10,924 m (35,798') while its average depth is about 4.270 m (14,000'). The Pacific Ocean alone contains a third of all liquid water on Planet Earth.

Pacific islands are grouped by approximate location and ethnological rather than geographic criteria. The three major archipelaga are the Indonesian one in the far west, made up of about 17,000 islands, the Philippine archipelago with 7000, and the Japanese with 3900 islands. Other well-known island groups are the Aleutian Islands in the north and the Galapagos in the east. Thousands of small islands and atolls make up Micronesia, north of the equator, and Melanesia, south of the equator, in the west while Polynesia, spreading through the central and southern Pacific, accounts for most of the remainder. The latter two include the larger island-states of the region, such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.

Burnt around the edges

When I was a wee bairn... wait, let's make that about 250 million years ago by the best estimates and speculations of geologists. Anyway, back then there was a single landmass called Pangaea. It follows therefore that there was one contiguous ocean, predictably (if you're a scientist with a Greek fixation) named Panthalassa. The Pacific is the remnant of Panthalassa, as the Atlantic and Indian oceans opened to create Australia and the Americas as distinct landmasses.

The Pacific is almost surrounded by the World Cordillera System, from the Antarctic Peninsula right up the Aleutians and back down through the Kamchatka, into Japan and Indonesia. This continuous zone of earthquakes and volcanic activity is termed the Ring of Fire and collectively the most volcanic zone on earth, as recent eruptions in places as far apart as Ecuador, Japan and the United States will attest to. Quakes are equally common, major ones in recent memory having occurred in Nicaragua, Kobe, Alaska and not few other places.

Under its surface it's no less exciting. Almost all of the Pacific, with the exception of the parts bordering Central America and northern South America, sits on a single tectonic plate which bears its name (and the weight of a hell of a lot of aitch two oh). The most prominent feature on the Pacific's ocean floor is the East Pacific Rise, which is part of the world-wide Mid-Ocean Ridge system and merges into the San Andreas Fault system. In the west, there's striking contrast between the mountain ranges of the Philippines and New Zealand that rise from the ocean floor and right next to them, just off the continental shelf, the deepest trenches in the world. Another interesting feature is the Hawaiian Island chain which is tracking eastwards, volcanic island after volcanic island rising from a moving hot spot beneath the ocean floor and sinking back into it. Chances are it will one day arrive in mainland America and you'll be getting there by bus.

"A beautiful, peaceful ocean"

Not likely, with so much water sloshing about in one enormous basin and nothing in the manner of wind breaks. The only peace you'll consistently find in the Pacific is in the doldrums, and people tend to object to running into those. Like every large body of water, the Pacific has its fair share of storms and disagreeable weather.

From the perpetual gales of the roaring forties to the fog that cloaks the northern coast half the year, this vast expanse of ocean holds the key to much of the climate on earth. Typically talk is made of the El Niño phenomenon but that's only one piece in the jigsaw. I'm not a meteorologist or climatologist but will try to play both on E2.

The most significant pieces of the puzzle are the ocean currents, particularly three: the clockwise Kuroshio or Japan current which, like the Atlantic's Gulf Stream, carries warm waters from the Asian coast to North America, turns south as the California current and heads back as the north equatorial current. The counter-clockwise South Pacific current crosses from New Zealand to Chile and there merges with the cold waters of the circumpolar current before splitting into the three branches of the south equatorial current, one part turning towards Australia, the other two crossing back further north. Finally, there's the counter-clockwise Alaskan current which returns part of the Kuroshio's waters up the Alaskan and down the Siberian coasts, returning to Japan as a cold current before merging again with the warm waters from the equator.

All these currents are wind-driven, meaning that they're the result of surface winds and follow their direction. Since high-pressure anticyclones are clockwise in the north hemisphere, the current follows that general direction. Conditions vary between seasons and the rest of this belongs in a separate node.

The climate across much of the Pacific was long thought to be that of an oceanic desert, with little in terms of precipitation and little life in nutrient-poor waters. More recent studies conducted by scientists from Hawaii have cast doubts on this. Indeed, there's a lot that's unknown about the millions of square miles of uninhabited, uncharted ocean. One can easily say what sort of climate and weather the coastal areas have but that of the middle of the empty ocean is not very well known and, for all we know, here may yet be monsters. Five climatic zones can be distinguished though:

  • Westerlies: Variable and seasonal westerly winds in the mid-latitudes of both hemispheres
  • Trades: The steady equatorial trade winds from the east with a narrow range of temperatures between 21°C and 27°C
  • Monsoon: Seasonal flow of air from the Australasian landmasses out to sea or the reverse, this is the far west Pacific.
  • Doldrums: Humid and cloudy with calm or light winds in the open ocean, found off Central America and in the west near the equator.
  • Typhoon regions: Frequent cyclones in the western and eastern parts, as described below.

Tropical cyclonic storms are more frequent in the Pacific than in the Atlantic and occur in three main groupings and seasons: the east Pacific produces storms off the coast of Mexico and Central America that don't often make landfall but can reach as far north as California. Occasionally an Atlantic storm will cross over from the Gulf of Mexico and be catalogued as a Pacific one too. The hurricane season here lasts from June to October. South-east Asia is often visited by typhoons between May and December, the area from the Philippines to Japan being most frequently hit. December to April is the season in Queensland and the Northern Territory of Australia. Typhoons and hurricanes are the same thing and the name difference is purely a matter of region and language.

Crossing the date line

From the Maori in the south to the Ainu and Aleutian people in the north, the western crescent of the Pacific is of enormous significance to hundreds of cultures and key to their economies since prehistoric times, and to those of modern states. Ferdie wasn't the first to sail it; Polynesian and Micronesian navigators crossed improbable distances in their catamarans, settling most habitable island groups and reaching as far north as Hawaii. Their dying art has been revived and it's been proven that skilled navigators can find their way with none of the modern instruments that Europeans depend upon. Thor Heyerdahl sailed the traditionally built Kon-Tiki across the south Pacific from east to west in 1947, demonstrating that even transpacific travel was technically feasible in such a craft and may have occurred before modern times.

In 1520-21 it took Magellan's ships four months to cross it. He did eventually reach the Philippines (only to leave his bones there), which would later become a dominion of Spain, but the route he had found did not compare to that around Africa and could not be considered a viable east-west trade route. Apart from some relatively minor commerce between China and Mexico through the port of Acapulco and Spanish treasure shipments from the Philippines via South America, large-scale transpacific trade would not catch on until the United States opened relations with China and Japan in the late 19th century. Trade within the western Pacific is as brisk today as it has ever been.

Some of the major ports of the Pacific Ocean, historically and today, are Shanghai, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, Valparaiso, Sydney, Vancouver, Vladivostok and Guayaquil. Vast amounts of goods and commodities are exchanged between these ports, from Chilean copper, Ecuadorean oil and Chinese plastics to Japanese automobiles and timber from the rainforests of British Columbia.

So, what was there before "we" found it?

Contrary to popular belief and with relativistic fallacy in mind, there were actually people there long before our farang European boy Fernando showed up. And, while the peoples of the Americas, with the exception of its far northern reaches, were bound more to the land than to the sea, the peoples and nations of the western Pacific have, over the millennia, created great and diverse cultures, many of which I've already mentioned, most of them maritime and inextricably bound to life around and on this great, wide ocean.

Leave it as ya found it, will ya?

Its native people, especially those of the South Seas and the far north, enjoyed and depended on the bounty of the sea for many centuries before the rest of the world came to share. The ocean is one of the prime sources of seafood for the world. The Pacific yields about 60% of all fish consumed by humans. Sardines, tuna, herring, salmon, they're all there. In the south, whole fleets of factory ships from Japan and Russia harvest untold amounts of squid. The north Pacific used to be a popular hunting ground for whalers before they ran out of whales.

Other resources found in the Pacific and sought by man are the pearls of the central American, Philippine and Japanese coasts; vast expanses of ocean floor in the central Pacific are rich in polymetallic nodules where they're pretty hard to get at; high grade sand and gravel are easily gotten from some of its shores. Oil and natural gas deposits are relatively small compared to other parts of the world and given the size of the area.

While the Pacific is vast by any measure, it's not limitless. Many of its natural resources, particularly fish, are being stretched to the limits and industrial pollution from the United States, Japan, Taiwan and mainland China is an increasing issue. Coral reefs in the west and south-west, always sensitive to environmental changes, are showing wear and signs of dying while many species indigenous to its coasts and islands have become extinct or are threatened.

Possibly the greatest concern among Pacific nations, especially the small countries made up of small, low-lying islands, is that of climate change and global warming. It's easy for us elsewhere to take our chances and academically squabble over whether it's happening or not but for some countries it's a matter of existence since even a modest rise in sea level could simply wipe them off the map and turn them from tropical paradises into nothing more than underwater shipping hazards.

Many cultures bound to the sea call the ocean "mother." The Pacific, most ancient and greatest of them all, is the mother of all oceans.

Too many to name individually. Much from memory.

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