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BooksNovember 5, 2015

Books: A Thousand Leagues of Blue – An Epic History of the Pacific

the blue waves of the ocean
the blue waves of the ocean

Simon Winchester takes on his most difficult subject yet – a biography of the Pacific. Graeme Lay delves deep, deep into its depths. 

There can be few people who when flying over the Pacific Ocean haven’t stared down from a window seat at the dark, wind-scuffed blueness below with a sense of wonder. Understandably so. The Pacific Ocean’s statistics are awe-inspiring. It is twice the size of the Atlantic Ocean and occupies one-third of the Earth’s surface. At 64 million square miles in area, all the world’s continents could be contained within the Pacific Ocean’s borders, with room to spare. Underlying the ocean is our planet’s largest tectonic plate, and the hypnotically beautiful islands which can occasionally be glimpsed through the plane window have been created by intense volcanic activity, causing ‘hot spots’ to erupt across the Pacific and especially around its margins.

This immense body of seawater, and the natural and human activities which are set within its sphere, is the subject of veteran writer Simon Winchester’s latest book, weighing in at 500 pages, Pacific: The Ocean of the Future.

It opens with a lengthy prologue, ‘The Lonely Sea and the Sky’, based on a 6000 mile flight, known as the ‘island hopper’, which he takes on United154 from Honolulu, Hawaii. Flying southwestward, this eventually takes the writer to Hagatna, the one city on the island of Guam, but along the way it makes five stops, at Majuro and Kwajelein in the Marshall Islands, then Kosrae, Pohnpei and Chunuk, in the Federated States of Micronesia.

A footnote (Winchester’s footnotes are invariably revealing) informs us that there are today only 80,000 native Hawaiians on the islands living in the US’s 50th state. There are 336,000 whites, a figure matched by half a million people from around or within the Pacific, including 200,000 ethnic Filipinos and 185,000 ethnic Japanese.

United Flight 154 flies on, crossing the International Dateline then passing from Polynesia into the ‘sprawling archipelagos’ of Micronesia. Always giving due consideration to history, Winchester reminds us that the colonisation of the western Pacific threw up some surprising and largely forgotten administrators. For example Germany took over from Spain as a colonising power at the end of the nineteenth century, then upon the outbreak of World War One, Germany’s island possessions throughout Micronesia were taken over by Japan, which was allied to Britain at that time.

Only later, post-Pearl Harbour, did the West realise what a strategic advantage these island bases gave Japan as launching pads for war, after she had become an enemy power. The taking back of the islands of Micronesia from Japan during the war in the Pacific incurred a terrible loss of life.

These events lead in to a later chapter on the way the Marshall Islands and their people have been abused by their current funders, the United States. Winchester states that despite Portuguese voyager Ferdinand Magellan’s 1520 bestowed name, Mar Pacifico, Earth’s largest body of water is anything but peaceful. ‘It is the ocean where most of the world’s thermonuclear weapons have been tested, and has been ever since the beginning of the story, in January 1950’. A chapter on nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in the 1950s documents the shameful treatment of that island’s indigenous people by the American military authorities, as bad as that by the French towards the people of Mururoa and other atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago.

The main body of Winchester’s text begins in the year 1950, which for the author marks a watershed not just in the Pacific but in global history. Japanese civilians were still dying from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the Cold War, with all its sinister implications, was imminent. The USSR, like the USA, was busy testing the newly-invented atomic devices which would irradiate the Pacific’s atmosphere.

January 1 1950, the first day of the half-way year of the twentieth century, provides Winchester the scientist with a useful baseline point. Before that date Earth’s atmosphere was radio-chemically pure; after that day it became sullied by atomic bomb-created isotopes.


Winchester then gets right down to the marrow of his story: the hideous details of the testing of nuclear weapons in the western Pacific. ‘The Great Thermonuclear Sea’ documents the inauguration of nuclear weapons testing, which would, ‘turn Bikini and all her islands and their lagoon into a hellish gyre of ruin and mayhem’. This chapter includes a photograph of the plutonium bomb, quaintly entitled ‘Helen of Bikini’, exploding in 1947 above the island’s lagoon. Some of the scenes of nuclear testing in Micronesia which Winchester describes are scarcely believable, such as the hulks of several obsolete ships, including the warship USS Arkansas, being vapourised and sucked up in a thermonuclear detonation. A photograph of this sinister blast adorns the cover of the book.

This thermonuclear explosion also spread ‘abroad a vast and deadly amount of radiation’. The Bikini islanders had been first removed to a neighbouring island, Rongerik, then were shifted to more distant Kwajalein, where they were accommodated in tent lines alongside a long military airstrip. An attempt to later return the islanders to Bikini failed after it was discovered that their home atoll was still lethally contaminated, although later, in 1978, they were again taken back to their now-lifeless island. But because making a living there was impossible, the Bikini people were moved on once more, to a tiny island in the southern Marshall group, called Kili, which these ‘atomic nomads’ have been forced to call home ever since.

Winchester’s anger at this big-power act of brazen carelessness is undisguised. This chapter concludes with the statement:

Bikini today is a place of a strangely deadened silence – a terrible, unnatural emptiness that compels any visitor to turn somewhere, to try to face the eternally invisible perpetrators of all this, and demand of no one and of everyone: just why?

Yet in Winchester’s account of the Pacific, not all is death, misrule and despoliation. Reminding us that the Pacific Ocean’s waves roll onto eastern shores as well as western coasts, his chapter ‘The Ecstasies of Wave Riding’ recounts the evolution of surfboard riding. Originating in Hawaii, the sport and its associated way of life then spread to southern California, aided by the 1959 beach cult movie Gidget. The film helped launch the board-riding revolution in New Zealand, too.

Winchester describes the evolution of the surfboard itself, which became refined from hefty wooden planks to far lighter and much more manoeuvrable boards through the applications of polyurenthanes, resins and fibreglass in the 1960s. Surfing subsequently became not just a sport but a way of life, from Oahu to Malibu, from Peru to Australia, while Hawaii remained its spiritual home. Again, Winchester gives this story depth by examining its historical context. He spent six weeks in Hawaii in 2014, and obviously put the time to good use, particularly the resources of the Pacific Collection at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu.

He describes the roles played by Jack London, the famous writer who first visited Hawaii in 1907, and the Hawaiian Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku, in popularising board-riding around the world. Winchester observes that for some firms adjacent to surf breaks on the US west coast, so embedded has the surfing way of life become that the companies now find it useful to hire people who surf.

The state of North Korea gets a chapter (‘A Dire and Dangerous Irritation’), in which it is recalled that in a little-remembered 1968 incident the belligerent North Koreans boarded and captured the USS Pueblo, a navy freighter and ‘electronic eavesdropper’ and held her crew hostage. This was the first occasion that an American naval vessel had been captured on the high seas since the British captured the frigate USS President off the coast of New York City in 1815. The Pueblo’s eighty-two crew were held and maltreated for nearly a year until the American government was obliged to apologize in order for the captain and crewmen to be set free by the North Koreans.

This incident foreshadows a detailed analysis by Winchester of the Pyongyang regime’s bizarre behaviour, particularly along the divided peninsula on which the two Koreas have confronted each other for over half a century. Again the writer uses his personal experience of visiting both Koreas (is there anywhere, I wondered enviously, where this man hasn’t been?) to try to make sense of the prolonged and implacable stand-off between the two countries on the Korean peninsula.


Although New Zealand only gets mentioned in passing – through its unique geological position straddling two of the Pacific’s great tectonic plates – Australia is given considerable coverage. In ‘How Goes the Lucky Country?’ the near-total destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracey on Christmas day 1974 is documented in dramatic detail. A second cyclone, this time a political one, occurred in November 1975, when the elected Prime Minister of Australia was sacked by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. Hitherto the nation’s decorative governors-general had never had the temerity to actually employ their constitutional authority, and Kerr’s unprecedented action caused a shock wave to pass throughout the British Commonwealth.

Winchester tells the saga of the building of the Sydney Opera House and the appalling treatment meted out to its architect, Jorn Utzon. Cost over-runs and serious design flaws plagued the building, and by the time it was officially opened by the Queen in 1973, Utzon was not even invited to the ceremony. Understandably embittered, he did not return to Australia. The architect was eventually honoured, but only after his death, in 2008.

The slow but steady liberalisation of the ‘White Australia’ policy is documented, as is the rise of demagogue Pauline Hanson in response to it, and today’s phenomenon of the asylum seekers who wash up on Australia’s shores. An ardent conservationist, Winchester also examines the coral bleaching which is adversely affecting Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, and the environmental madness that will see a huge port dredged out of the Queensland coast at Abbot Point, in order to facilitate the export of millions of tonnes of coal from the state’s inland mines. The proposed port will require the dredging and dumping of millions of tons of seabed, only a short distance away from the pristine Whitsunday Islands and Hayman Island.

Many people can quote the first part of the sentence written about Australia by commentator Donald Horne: ‘Australia is a lucky country …’ Few people, however, can quote the rest of the sentence, which as Winchester reminds us, goes: ‘…run mainly by second rate people who share its luck’. The Australia chapter concludes with an apposite comment by one of Winchester’s Australian friends about his homeland: ‘A great place to live. But not a great country. Not yet’.

That Winchester the writer is also very much Simon the man of science is emphasised by detailed chapters on volcanism in the Pacific. The so-called ‘Ring of Fire’ – more accurately a ‘belt’, as he points out – includes 400 live or dormant volcanoes, of which Mt St Helens, Mt Pinatubo, Krakatoa and Popacatepetl are the best-known. Having covered Krakatoa thoroughly in a previous book, he now concentrates on the 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo, in the Philippines and its consequences. Now largely forgotten, Pinatubo’s eruption was totally unexpected, and its ramifications far-reaching.

Ash from the massive eruption caused widespread death and destruction on the island of Luzon, and the ruination and closure of two enormous American military bases in the Philippines, Clark Base (in 1991) and Subic (in 1992). There had only been one larger volcanic eruption in entire the twentieth century, that being a series of enormous explosions on the Aleutian Range, on the Alaskan peninsula, in 1912. These eruptions lasted five months and were caused by a ‘stratovolcano, Novarupta’. More words which made me reach for my dictionary, a not infrequent exercise as I read Winchester’s book.

For those mystified by the arcane workings of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, Winchester does his best to explain how this cyclical system, which strikes the Pacific every few years with devastating climatic and economic consequences, develops. The 1982-83 El Nino arrival caused a ‘cascade of events’, from rising sea levels in the eastern Pacific to droughts and forest fires in Java. Winchester provides both the causes and effects of the Southern Oscillation on Pacific communities, particularly the way the warming of the eastern Pacific has adversely affected the anchovy fishermen of Peru. With another El Nino a near-certainty to descend on the Pacific this coming summer, we should all be prepared for similar environmental and economic disruptions.

Winchester takes us deep into the ocean to unearth the Pacific’s hydrothermal vent fields, the exploration of which has revolutionised tectonic plate theory. The principal investigation of the ocean floor was carried out in a three-person submersible, Alvin, built back in 1964. This doughty little craft permitted scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to explore deep-sea structures miles under the ocean, and included a probe of the Pacific’s Mid-Oceanic Ridge system, one of our planet’s largest physical features, and at 40,000 miles long, the longest of the world’s mountain chains, albeit one which few people have seen.


The fragility of the Pacific’s ecosystem, despite its enormous scale, is a theme the writer returns to. Careless dumping of garbage from ships and thoughtless disposal of indissoluble plastic has resulted, through the swirling and converging of Pacific currents, in vortexes of floating trash. The word for these ghastly accumulations of trash is ‘gyre’, and there are two of them: one in the east, between San Francisco and Hawaii, and one south-west of Japan. The one in the east has been called ‘The Pacific Garbage Patch’. The particles of plastic the gyres contain are ingested by surface swimming sea creatures and thus can enter the food chain, with potentially destructive consequences.

Solutions to the environmental despoliation which Winchester describes includes American oligarch Larry Ellison’s buying of ‘the delightfully shabby little island of Lana’i’, in the Hawaiian archipelago, which Ellison intends to convert to a sustainable Arcadia. Without much success so far, Winchester also reports.

That the Pacific has the potential for its dangerous tradition of political altercations to be maintained is made clear in ‘Of Masters and Commanders’. Here the writer comprehensively describes the rapid expansion of China’s naval and air power in recent years, and the emergence of a number of potentially lethal flashpoints in the western Pacific. These have mostly been caused by Chinese claims to islands near Hainan, Vietnam and in the South China Sea.

This increasing bellicosity of China and its search for what Winchester terms ‘a just measure of Pacific lebensraum’, includes the seizure of coral reefs and uninhabited islands across the South China Sea as well as the building of artificial islands off the coast. What the Chinese government calls ‘weather observation stations’, these actually house missile batteries, and deep-water port facilities which can accommodate aircraft carriers. This build-up of military hardware and artificial territorial expansion is a source of concern, Winchester claims, pointing out for instance that in the event of military conflict between China and Japan, the US is bound by treaty to come to Japan’s assistance. As Winchester puts it:

The more than 1.3 billion people of China – together with their nation of such formidable antiquity, equipped as it is with a deep understanding of the history and the context and the cycles of human time – are now central to understanding the Pacific’s future.

Returning to the theme of the Pacific’s past having relevance to its present, his epilogue focuses on the building and voyaging of a double-hulled Hawaiian sailing canoe, Hokule’a. Built on Oahu in 1975, entirely from traditional materials, this craft has succeeded in sailing across long reaches of the Pacific Ocean to designated island destinations without using any modern navigational instruments. No compass, no sextant, no radio or GPS.

In doing so Hokule’a re-enacted the voyaging feats of the ancestral Polynesians, who sailed from South-East Asia and across the Pacific to as far away as Hawaii, Easter island and New Zealand, the apexes of the great Polynesian cultural triangle. Hokule’a is crewed mostly by young Hawaiians, but her maiden voyage of 2,600 miles from Oahu to Tahiti was guided by a 41-year-old Yapese called Pius Piailug, who had been taught the art of celestial navigation from childhood on the island of Satawal, in the Caroline Islands.

Today Hokule’a still plies the world’s oceans, reminding us that the people of the Pacific have always been the greatest voyagers in human history.

Pacific is crammed with historic and technical detail pertaining to our planet’s largest ocean. It’s also immensely readable. Winchester the scientist-journalist melds with Simon the story-teller to produce a book which is difficult to put down. Its other strength is to place contemporary or recent events firmly within their historic context, something which raises the book far above the level of common travel writing. As Winchester makes clear, historical considerations are central to every aspect of the Pacific Ocean narrative.

And although in this case New Zealand is only peripheral to the story, there is still something very affecting about the fact that the ocean whose waves lap the sand of my local beach here in Devonport is also the one whose waves break on the shores of Guam and Hokkaido, Alaska and Chile.

In this way the Pacific Ocean touches us all. And thus it behoves us all to do everything we can to protect this magnificent sphere.

Pacific: The Ocean of the Future by Simon Winchester (William Collins, $39.99) is available at Unity Books.


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