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The Size Issue

June 30, 2011

Size isn’t relative. But it appears to be so.

Each Marquesan island looks larger than the last. Over the several hours of Murre’s slow approach it grows from a low silhouette to an intricate mass of rock and vegetation that explodes in the eyes. The mountains are fold upon fold of ridge and canyon whose dark rock has the weight of iron. They shoot straight up out the sea, rarely pausing long enough to form a sandy beach, and into the cloud, cloud that hides the peaks and gives the impression of infinite height. Next to this the fringe of waves that lines the shore is small and pretty but unsubstantial, decoration, pearls hung from the neck of a giant.

But this is illusion.

In fact the islands are mere specks on the Pacific. In terrestrial terms the Pacific Ocean’s 64 million square miles of area is truly vast. The United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, could fit into it 16 times. It could hold all the earth’s continents plus yet another Africa and still have room left over. Looked at another way, if a road trip from San Francisco to New York requires about three and a half days (assuming 12 hour driving days at an average of 50 miles an hour), then 18 days would be needed for a similar trip crossing one of the Pacific’s wider parts, Tokyo to Santiago, Chile. The Pacific’s a big place.

Next to this the area of the South Pacific that describes French Polynesia seems rather small. Yet its 1.5 million square miles of ocean is half the area of the continental US. Scattered within it are 121 islands in five archipelagoes, the Marquesas, Society, Tuamotu, Gambier and Astral groups, whose combined area is just 1,418 square miles, not much larger than the state of Rhode Island. In French Polynesia there’s roughly one square mile of land to every 10,000 square miles of water. The Marquesas group is but ten of these islands, and their combined area is 385 square miles. Some Los Angeles celebrities have homes with larger footprints.

Other comparisons. The Marquesas Islands could fit into the area of Tahiti, one of the Society Islands. All of the Society Islands together are smaller than Maui, the second largest Hawaiian island. All of French Polynesia is barely one third the area of the Big Island of Hawaii.

The Marquesas are too small (or too remote or both) to support an endemic land animal and there are only ten species of native birds. Of the 320 species of vascular plants found in the Marquesas, roughly 42% are indigenous, a large percentage for oceanic islands of similar size. But this pales in comparison to Hawaii’s 1,138 species of plants, 86% of which are indigenous.

An estimated 246,000 people reside in French Polynesia, about 70% of whom are of Polynesian descent. Compare smaller Rhode Island at over one million residents. About 80% of French Polynesia’s people live on the island of Tahiti, and 80% of those in the capital city of Pepeete.

When Europeans first encountered the Marquesans, the culture was at its apex and its population topped 80,000 inhabitants. First settled between 150 BC and 100 AD by the peoples of eastern Asia, population consistently expanded until between 1100 and 1400 AD all livable valleys and plateaus were at saturation point. By the time of Cook’s arrival on Tahuata in 1774, Marquesan tribes invaded each other and fought over land to such an extent that war was a way of life. Many islanders had migrated to valley settlements for protection from raids. One theory has it that the rise of cannibalism in the Marquesas was due to a shortage of protein in the diet of a population that was expanding faster than its ability to supply fish and domestic meats.

But western contact cures all ills. After Cook, the rapid increase in visits from sandalwood traders and whalers introduced diseases, arms and alcohol, and the population plummeted until an 1880 census showed that only 4,865 Marquesans remained. Numbers have rebounded since then and continue to grow, and the most recent census put the population at 8,800. The typical American Baseball Park has a capacity that exceeds that by a factor of four.

The islands are so small that when the town shuts down for a holiday (an amazingly frequent occurrence) no one is inconvenienced because there are only two general stores, one hardware store, and one restaurant.

The jail on Nuku Hiva is left unlocked because inmates have nowhere to run. Often they can be seen lounging on the stoop; on visiting days the family and the inmate may have a picnic on the front lawn.

The power plant on each island is smaller than the village church. Recently a Reggae festival on the beach of Taiohea blew a circuit at the plant and for an hour the whole island went dark. Locals responded by turning up their car stereos and the party continued unabated.

The airport control tower at Nuku Hiva speaks only French, which means any inbound charter traffic must either have or hire a French-speaking pilot, effectively reducing to nearly zero the number of non-French inbound charter planes.

The few miles of road on each island contain no speed limit signs, though the Gendarmerie strictly enforces a seat belt law and a helmet law for motorbikes. The all-Marquesan police force (I’ve counted as many as two officers on Nuku Hiva) does not carry guns. They ride scooters.

Still, I cannot get over the grandeur of the islands–those spires on Ua Pou that rise up out of the jungle like the Empire State Building or that great granite cliff near the port that still looks as big as Yosemite’s El Capitan, even though I have since climbed it in an afternoon.

Size isn’t relative. But it appears to be so.



-LANDFALLS OF PARADISE, Earl Hinz, University of Hawaii Press, 1999.
-THE MARQUESAS ISLANDS, Chester, Baumgartner, Frechoso and Oetzel, Wandering Albatross Press, 2004.
-“The History of the Marquesas Islands”, Dr Janet Sumner-Fromeyer. ONLINE RESOURCE.
-“Introduction to the Flora and Vegetation of the Marquesas Islands”, Jaque Florence and David H. Lorence, February, 1997. ONLINE RESOURCE.


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