Oceania! A catch-all term that often encompasses anything west of California and east of Japan, it can mean countries as big as Australia or as small as Nauru (a nation of less than ten thousand people) and thousands of tiny islands just barely big enough to show up on a map. Though many islands make their money off the tourist trade, this vast region contains many hidden dangers. Here are ten things to be careful of when sailing the Pacific.
10. FISHING IN A MILES-WIDE CLUMP OF FLOATING GARBAGE
If you’ve ever thrown out something really important (and non-biodegradable), you might want to take a trip out to the North Pacific to sort through the Pacific Garbage Vortex, an enormous floating junkyard of over 100 million tons of plastic crap that at its thickest concentrations is believed to be roughly twice the size of Hawaii. Currents from the North American and Asian coasts, traveling in opposite directions, create a slowly rotating area of ocean known as a “gyre” and also bring tons of floating trash from the coastlines of either continents to meet in the middle, resulting in a big nasty blob of McDonald’s wrappers and Soya Burger boxes that slowly melt/crumble into a toxic confetti-like substance that sticks in the throats and digestive systems of fish and birds.
Several cleanup efforts have been launched, but the sheer scale of the problem tends to defy solution, and since the Vortex is miles deep in international waters, no particular government is overly concerned about it. Oh well, I’m sure the problem will go away by itself eventually.
9. UNEXPLODED WWII MUNITIONS
The war in the Pacific was so wide-ranging that it’s difficult to even visualize, with the theater of operations extending from the Aleutian Islands in the north to New Zealand and the Australian coast in the south. During the war’s early stages, the Imperial Japanese Navy captured and fortified hundreds of islands to use as seaplane and submarine bases, radio relays, surveillance outposts, and supply dumps. Japan thought of these island bases as part of a multilayered defense system that American and British commanders would have to fight through in order to attack their homeland, when in reality Allied leaders like Chester Nimitz and Charles MacArthur simply steamed right past the majority of Japanese strongholds, choosing only to attack certain strategic islands as part of the celebrated “island-hopping” strategy.
When the Emperor surrendered, most Japanese Navy and Army troops simply walked away from their still-armed machine guns, cannons, and minefields in order to surrender to the nearest Allied ship, littering the Pacific with more than its share of deadly hidden explosives. Considering that most of these soldiers had been living under starvation conditions for more than a year, it’s sort of understandable that they didn’t remember to clean up after themselves, but the combination of their leftover bombs and ammunition with the thousands of tons of volatile military cargo that was sunk during the war makes the Pacific an especially dangerous place to poke rusty bomb-shaped things with a stick.
8. UNINFORMED/UNREPENTANT WWII SOLDIERS
One unexpected byproduct of the Allied island-hopping strategy was that some of the hopped islands were so remote and disconnected from the Japanese command structure that they either never heard Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast to surrender or believed that such a broadcast was an American trick. As a result, a few isolated Japanese troops continued to fight the good fight for years after the official end of the Pacific war—some units even joined the Viet Minh and other Asian revolutionary movements as part of a long-range anti-colonial strategy promulgated by the Japanese military.
The last confirmed “holdout” was discovered in late 1974, although rumors persist of a Japanese soldier that continued a guerilla war against American and Filipino troops until at least 1980. During WWII, Japanese troops were trained to near-superhuman standards (Imperial Japanese Navy officers were expected to be able to swim 150 feet in thirty seconds and to be able to hold their breath for up to two minutes) so it’s not entirely unreasonable to worry that you might show up on a seemingly deserted Pacific island for some scuba diving and be confronted by wizened 90-year-old xenophobes waving bayoneted rifles and demanding you swear allegiance to the Emperor.
7. HAVING YOUR COUNTRY BLOWN UP
The Marshallese island group known as Pikinni Atoll was one of the few Pacific properties under Japanese control to avoid being turned into a fortress, and the Pikinnian people one of the few who weren’t enslaved or murdered by Japanese troops, so when the war ended without so much as a single bullet being fired on their islands, the people of Pikinni Atoll (or as commonly pronounced and spelled in English, Bikini Atoll) could justifiably think of themselves as pretty lucky.
That was before 1946, when the United States officially received control of the atoll just when they were looking to test a bunch of different atomic bomb designs. The 200 Bikinians were packed on boats, issued old GI rations, and told that they could absolutely come back home just as soon as the American military was done exploding the hell out of a bunch of obsolete battleships; 23 nuclear explosions and 66 years later the Bikinian people are still living in exile on the nearby island of Kili, after an overly optimistic attempt to return them to their homeland resulted in sickness, birth defects, and a $150 million out-of-court settlement from the sheepish US government.
While the money and government support is nice, and it’s always cool to have a swimsuit named after you (the famous two-piece swimwear was a followup to the French “Atome” single-piece suit, billed as the smallest swimsuit possible—the bikini was advertised as “having split the Atome”), the Bikinians remain a little bit pissed off about having everything they’d ever known or loved destroyed by atomic fire and invisible radiation.
6. HAVING YOUR COUNTRY DISAPPEAR UNDERWATER
The Republic of Kiribati gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1979 after a peaceful transition towards self-government over a period of twenty years. After another twenty years from today, it’s entirely possible that the Republic of Kiribati and the entire Gilbert Islands archipelago will no longer exist. Global climate change, which everyone knows doesn’t exist and is over-exaggerated and is junk science and socialist propaganda, has led to steadily rising sea levels that have swamped homes and ruined farmland throughout the 313-square-mile (but only 6 feet above sea level) island chain, and in March of 2012 the Kiribati government announced formal plans to gradually transfer the entire Kiribati population of 113,000 people to land purchased from the government of Fiji.
Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific islands have been particularly vocal at meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, considering that their entire culture and society is barely a decade away from becoming a particularly complicated coral reef, but continuing controversy over the theory of global warming means that the UN required more time to deliberate—time that the Kiribati didn’t have.
5. HAVING YOUR COUNTRY STOLEN BY THE KING OF TONGAIn 1971, Las Vegas millionaire and libertarian activist Michael Oliver had an idea: if he was unable to convince the citizens and government of an existing country of the benefits of unlimited, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism, he would just build his own country out of unclaimed tide-washed land out in the Pacific that he could populate with like-minded followers. From this idea the “Republic of Minerva” was created—an artificial island in the middle of the North Minerva Reefs that consisted of several bargeloads of sand, a radar reflector, and the Minervan flag, which Oliver believed was all that was necessary to officially claim the land.
Having accomplished this, the Minervans dispatched their “roving ambassador” to the nearby nation of Tonga in order to inform their King that the isolated reefs long fished by Tongan citizens were now an entirely new sovereign nation owned by white people and inviting Tongans to come over and help build the infrastructure for a libertarian economic paradise free from artificial economic regulation and sustained by fishing, tourism, light industry and “other commercial activities.”
The suspiciously vague definition of “other commercial activities” raised Tongan eyebrows and was soon communicated to other Pacific states (Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, and the Cook Islands) in a conference where ownership of the Minerva Reefs was provisionally granted to King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga. King TT4, after consulting with international legal experts, constructed two artificial islands of his own that (unlike the Minervan “island”) remained above sea level even at high tide, issued a royal proclamation declaring the Minerva Reefs historically Tongan property backed up by his new islands, and commandeered a merchant ship and a platoon of burly Tongan soldiers armed with largely ceremonial bolt-action rifles to formally lay claim to the watery nation of Minerva.
After the Minervan flag was lowered, Michael Oliver found himself and his project outmaneuvered at every legal level and eventually abandoned his claim. Subsequent expeditions by particularly stubborn Libertarians have found themselves confronted and chased off by military patrol boats packing considerably more potent weapons than the Lee-Enfields of King Tupou’s royal entourage, as today the fishing rights of the Minervan Reefs are a hotly contested issue between the Tongan and Fijian governments.
4. DEVELOPING A SPAM ADDICTION
Spam (a portmanteau of “spiced ham”) is a cheap and disturbingly slimy canned pork shoulder product introduced by the Hormel Foods Corporation in 1937 and spread across the world by the American military during WWII. While Spam failed to catch on in the culinary capitals of Europe (outside of Britain, where it was seen as a welcome step up from the usual cuisine of boiled stomachs stuffed with other boiled stomachs), it became enormously popular among civilian populations of American bases and territories in the Pacific due to its low cost, long unrefrigerated shelf life, and salty flavor (claimed by some devotees of Hawaiian cuisine to be a natural complement to native dishes).
Hawaii and the American Pacific possessions of Saipan and Guam (where it’s estimated that every man, woman, and child consume at least 16 tins of Spam per year) are far and away the greatest consumers of Spam, where the experienced Spam connoisseur can buy unique Spam variants such as Bacon Spam, Tabasco Spam, and Turkey (?!) Spam, or dine out at any McDonald’s, Burger King, or Pizza Hut that commonly features Spam as a topping, sandwich meat, or menu item. The classiest Spam gourmand can often head to any reputable sushi restaurant for a plate of Spam musubi—fried Spam on a bed of white rice, wrapped in nori seaweed tape and served up with soy sauce for dipping.
Spam is so popular among the islands that Hormel introduced a new TV spokescharacter (“Sir Can-A-Lot”) to the Pacific market to remind the people there that no matter what food they’re thinking of eating it could always be improved by some Spam. In what Hormel Foods lawyers swear on the Bible is a completely unrelated and insignificant coincidence, the Pacific islands are experiencing a gigantic obesity-related health crisis.
3. INTERACTING WITH AUSTRALIANS
The largest and most powerful nation-state in the Pacific is undoubtedly Australia, which also happens to be either the largest island or the smallest continent in the world depending on which geologist you’re talking to at the time. Australia was founded at the height of the British Empire, when every able-bodied Englishman was busy killing everyone in their way and stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down for the greater glory of the Queen, and this newest colonial possession became the dumping ground for every Briton that took the whole “murder everybody/loot everything” idea too literally by killing or stealing from fellow English citizens.
Considering its status as a repository for people considered too sociopathic and dangerous even by British standards, Australia has been remarkably quiet and sociable towards its fellow Pacific states, if only because many of its neighbors are also former British possessions and waging genocidal wars against other countries and ethnicities that also have the Queen on their money simply isn’t done. On the other hand, Australia has an extremely problematic history of official and unofficial racism and violence against indigenous Australians (popularly known as Aborigines) paralleling the United States’ policy regarding Native Americans, and the multicultural cities of the Australian coast have played host to clashes between the white Australian majority and enclaves of immigrant students and laborers.
Finally, consider the fact that the original Mad Max film was based on director George Miller’s experience as an ER doctor in the 70s treating the victims of motorcycle gang violence in rural Australia—he only moved the film’s setting to an undefined point in the near future because he thought that audiences weren’t able to believe that the events of the film were actually taking place in an ostensibly civilized country. In spite of all this, many large Australian cities (particularly the coastal cities of Melbourne and Sydney) are consistently ranked as some of the top ten most “livable” cities in the world—a complicated equation based on quality of living, housing and utility costs, access to good education, cultural events, and food that is generally used to determine how much extra corporate officials are paid to move to a given city.
The major metropolitan centers of the Australian coast are considered so pleasant to live in that executives may even take a pay cut to live there, but always remember—Australians remember the Nightrider, and they know who you are! Remember Australia when you look to the night sky!
2. GETTING EATEN BY THE LOCALS
It’s fairly common for travelers to receive a cold welcome from isolated, insular rural communities—just try driving around Mississippi—but it’s generally considered out of the ordinary for unwelcome visitors to be straight-up eaten. This isn’t always the case in the Eastern Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea, the most rural and least explored country in the world, home to 800 different languages and at least that many unique cultural groups. Among these various tribes are the Korowai people, generally believed to be the last ethnic group in the world to practice ritual cannibalism, or at least the last ethnic group in the world to brag about practicing ritual cannibalism.
Modern anthropologists suspect that the Korowai have actually moved away from eating other human beings, but still claim to maintain the practice in order to attract media attention and a particularly weird subset of the tourism industry, occasionally releasing statements to the effect that Asian (particularly Japanese) people taste better than Caucasians and similar headline-grabbing statements. The last “respectable” news organization to seriously allege that the Korowai eat people was a report by CBS’ 60 Minutes back in 2006, a TV show less about serious journalism and more about producing an hour of crazy video footage to terrify your grandparents.
Nevertheless, believable and documented reports of cannibalism in Papua New Guinea date well into the twentieth century, so it may be a mistake to walk into a Korowai settlement and loudly proclaim that they’re a bunch of phonies who’ve never tasted human flesh in their lives.
Next: Top 10 Dangers Unique to India
1. ACCIDENTALLY BECOMING A GOD
Of all the awful things that happened to Pacific natives during WWII—genocide, enslavement, forced relocation, getting hosed down with deadly radioactive particles—the long-lasting cultural effects of a global mechanized high-technology civilization suddenly dropping in on the territory of an insular low-technology society tend to be understated if not completely ignored. Because of this, when Allied troops and airbases (and all the exotic food and tools that came with them) pulled out of WWII Pacific bases after a few short years, natives tended to think of this brief visitation from an incomprehensibly advanced culture of magical flying machines as an encounter with a new but indisputably real pantheon of gods.
Sounds silly? Turn on the History Channel and watch a few episodes of “Ancient Aliens” and you’ll see the exact same logic—this sort of idea is by no means limited to primitive Pacific island cultures.
Some Pacific islanders were lucky enough to learn about British or American culture and understand that there was a larger world and a more sophisticated technology beyond their experience, but many natives had little significant cultural contact with Western troops. These people watched from the shadows as cargo planes laden with fancy gadgets and tasty food bellied down on isolated airfields, quietly memorizing the movements and gestures of Allied air traffic control personnel and interpreting these actions the only way they could—as part of a ritual ceremony to request blessings from a god.
Unique among ritual ceremonies to demand stuff from a god, the actions these strange people were performing actually seemed to work, in that bizarre flying things appeared out of the sky bearing tools, medicine, and Spam. The old religions where gods only granted requests barely 50% of the time soon fell by the wayside, and the once-isolated tribes of the Pacific began building runways, hangars, and makeshift control towers in order to summon the much more plausible Allied sky-gods.
These so-called “cargo cults” flourished for long after WWII. Many cargo-cult legends and religions began to feature messianic figures like “John Frum,” a legendary African-American Navy serviceman that dark-skinned Pacific natives saw as a sort of symbol of prosperity and technological advancement that they could reach towards.
Even today, the Yaohnanen tribe of southern Vanuatu worships British Royal sugar-daddy Prince Phillip as the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy of a pale-skinned mountain spirit (and brother of John Frum) who travelled an incredible distance over the seas to marry a powerful lady (in this case, Queen Elizabeth II). If you play your cards right, you could conceivably luck into one of these cargo cults, but be warned—the people of the Pacific are mighty tired of gods who don’t deliver on their promises, and if you let them down it’s entirely your fault as to what happens to you.