Produced by: Huw Cordey , Fiona Pitcher
Explore the sheer scale and majesty of the largest and least-known ocean on Earth - the South Pacific. This landmark series amazes you with its rich history, unique plants and wildlife that span thousands of islands.
Item Number: 15285
English Subtitles for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired
10 minute behind the scenes footage after each episode
Explore the sheer scale and majesty of the largest and least-known ocean on Earth - the South Pacific. This landmark series amazes you with its rich history, unique plants and wildlife that span thousands of islands. Follow the travels of the Polynesians, witness the birth of active volcanoes and ponder the threatened future of this ever-changing system of seemingly endless atolls.
This landmark series explores the sheer scale and majesty of the largest ocean on Earth, the isolation of its islands, the extraordinary journeys wildlife and humans have gone through to reach these specks of land, and what happened to both after their arrival.
What do you know about the South Pacific? The words conjure up images of blue water and swaying palms, idyllic beaches and exotic human histories - we've all heard of Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti, but how many people in the Western world could place the Solomon Islands on a map, or have any idea where
Vanuatu is? Welcome to the real, immense and surprising South Pacific.
Unimaginably vast, the Pacific is 99% water and only 1% land - you could fit the whole of the world's landmasses into it and still have enough room for another Africa! It stretches from the heat of the tropics to the sub-Antarctic; coral gardens thrive in its warmest waters - and icebergs float in its coldest.
The distance between the islands can be huge - literally hundreds or thousands of miles - yet these were the journeys that plants, animals and people had to make to colonise these remote places, encircled by the ocean.
Isolation does curious things to plants, animals and even people. They evolve and adapt in strange ways.
Witness flesh-eating caterpillars, giant crabs capable of opening coconuts, vampire bugs with antifreeze
in their veins, geckos that can breed without any need of a male, frogs that have never been tadpoles and the humans that combine hand-made kites and spider webs to catch fish.
In human terms, the ocean journeys of the Polynesians were the most incredible ever taken - navigating thousands of miles in just canoes.
They had reached Hawaii even before the Vikings launched a ship. The last landmass to be colonised by people was in the South Pacific: New Zealand - just 800 years ago!
The Pacific is the most volcanically active region on earth. Islands can emerge without warning from beneath the surface of the ocean - only to face a never-ending battle against a relentlessly pounding surf. Stunning time-lapse and aerial shots reveal the processes of the life and death of these atolls.
And what of the future for the South Pacific?
Introduced species are running rampant; global warming and rising sea levels will soon inundate islands; the ocean is being over-fished and species like sharks are disappearing. But could the tide be turning?
1. An Ocean of Islands
Spin a globe so that the middle of the Pacific is directly in front of you and you will see a view of the world that is utterly unfamiliar. Continental landmasses are reduced to a sliver along the edges, leaving nothing but a seemingly endless ocean. A closer look into the blue will reveal a scattering of islands - thousands of them, from the Tropics to the sub-Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean. Many of these islands are unbelievably remote, isolated from each other by hundreds, even thousands, of miles of water.
It is this isolation that defines the South Pacific. It is what makes it so unique. Here, splendid isolation has led to splendid evolution, throwing up some real curiosities like monstrous coconut crabs, giant skinks and flesh-eating caterpillars. The South Pacific is also home to some of the most isolated communities on Earth, like the 300 Anutans who live on an island just a sixth of a square mile in area and hundreds of miles from its nearest neighbour.
The words ‘South Pacific' instantly conjure images of pure romance and earthly paradise. But for wildlife and people living at its most remote extremes, things are not always so easy: waves the size of multi-storey buildings, brutal tropical storms and, in the far South, even blizzards all contribute to the onslaught. And behind everything is one vast ocean - the biggest on the planet.
2. Rising Lands
The most heavenly of South Pacific islands owe their origins to a violent birth of fire and volcanism. Stunning time-lapse and cineflex aerials take you on a journey across time to witness the rising of new lands, their fall, and the eventual growth of atolls, ringed by jewelled tropical reefs.
Eruptions, lava flows, and fields of rocks that float on water... The life of an island is a remarkable natural drama, but it is the creatures which call these islands home that really have the power to amaze.
In the Solomon Islands, birds use volcanic heat to incubate their eggs, while in Hawaii snow-capped peaks (yes, there is snow in this tropical paradise) play host to a vampire bug, with antifreeze in its veins. The Pacific is a lost world where the bizarre strategies for living are as countless as the myriad islands scattered across this vast and watery ‘paradise.'
3. Endless Blue
Larger than all the world's land masses combined, the Pacific is the vastest ocean on Earth. This seemingly endless blue water is a remote wilderness, home to the deepest point in all the world's oceans, and containing half the world's water. Like a vast marine desert, much of these waters lack the basic nutrients needed to fuel life. Many animals living here must go to extraordinary lengths to find food, and mates.
From deep-diving sperm whales to giant turtles, from penguins to ocean-voyaging sharks, the South Pacific Ocean is home to creatures like no other. The stories of these animals and their incredible lives are irrevocably intertwined with the story of the ocean itself, and they present a reality that is far from the peace and romance of the South Pacific idyll.
Using the greatest shipwreck survival story of all time (the Essex whaling ship of 1820), we will discover the true hardships of animal survival in this watery desert, and reveal the mysterious marine life that lurks within the ‘Endless Blue'.
Remote and volcanic, the islands of the South Pacific are some of the most isolated places on Earth. Since their very creation, thousands of miles of water have separated these specks of earth from the nearest margins of continental land. Yet many islands teem with strange and exotic life. Unable to swim across the vast ocean voids, these animals and plants have presented a riddle which has taxed naturalists through the ages.
From the Australasian cradle, life spreads itself more and more thinly across the Pacific, until the last surviving voyagers are found cast away on the remotest of coral atolls. From the gecko which can give birth without having a mate, to the frog that needs no water for its tadpoles, the successful castaways have some extraordinary adaptations. Others, such as the tree-climbing kangaroo didn't get so far.
This is the story of winners and losers, and the incredible feats of navigation and serendipity which have enabled life in its myriad forms to conquer even the most far-flung of shores.
5. Strange Islands
Strange things live on islands. Giant lizards with monkey tails, flightless nocturnal parrots, forest-dwelling penguins, and kangaroos that live in trees. These are just a few of the unlikely animals that have evolved on the isolated dots of land in the vast Pacific. Most islands only have room for a few oddities, but the vast isles of New Zealand, with their rainforests, mountains and glaciers, have an abundance of unique creatures - although the only mammals to have colonised were bats. Bats became mice and an assortment of bizarre birds ruled the forests, but then some new arrivals reached these isolated shores.
Today, no less than 70 million possums live in New Zealand and a variety of familiar animals are finding new homes throughout the Pacific - often with catastrophic consequences for the unique island creatures. But here lies a puzzle: why do animals perfectly adapted to island life give up the ghost when creatures with no experience of island survival invade?
The new invaders have been catching a ride with human colonisers and - like the wildlife they have encountered - people have also had to adapt just to survive on these remote isles. They use fire to catch flying fish at night, while on Vanuatu 2,000 colourful islanders congregate every three years to celebrate an end to desperate times when cannibalism was a way of life.
Before humans, one species managed to reach the remote islands of Hawaii every 100,000 years; today 30 new species turn up every year. Life on an isolated Pacific island is eternally poised on a knife-edge; nowhere is this more apparent than in the remarkable and intriguing history of Easter Island.
6. A Fragile Paradise
Ever since people first discovered the Pacific, we have been fishing its bountiful waters in ingenious and increasingly effective ways. Islanders use spider's silk suspended by a kite to snare needlefish. Offshore, on a large modern fishing vessel, a row of fishermen dangle lures into a feeding frenzy of tuna, flicking the powerful fish onto the deck at spectacular speed. But as our fishing becomes ever more efficient, there are worries that now too many boats are chasing too few fish. Out on the high seas we join activists who are willing to put their lives on the line to save not whales, but tuna.
The magnificent albatross has long been a symbol of the untamable spirit of the ocean, but thousands have drowned as unwanted by-catch on the hooks of fishing lines. Now fishermen are pioneering new techniques to keep the birds off their hooks and assure a brighter future for all seabirds.
In the tropical islands of Fiji, the locals are learning new ways to bring colourful corals back to their damaged reefs; while a team of divers is restoring a reef's abundant fish life by introducing tourists to huge barrel-chested bull sharks.
But a new cloud is looming on the horizon. Islands are being washed away, corals are dying and a sinister change in the chemistry of the Pacific's waters is threatening the miniscule yet beautiful animals on which most other marine life depends. A vast Supertanker, quarter of a mile long, carrying oil from one end of the Pacific to the other, symbolises the threat posed to the world it passes through.
Is it too late to save this wonderful ocean? In Tonga, tourists now swim with some gentle giants that nearly disappeared from the world forever: that humpback whales still swim in the Pacific is proof that we can act globally to protect the wildlife of this fragile paradise.
There are 25,000 islands in the South Pacific. Anuta, for example, has one of the most isolated communities of people on the planet - the makers of this series their first visitors in two years.
Television firsts in the series include aerials of an exploding undersea volcano; the first ever shots of a dingiso, a kind of New Guinea tree kangaroo only discovered in 1994; a never filmed before bird of paradise; and perhaps the most pristine coral reef in the world.
The Secret of Vanuatu's Happiness
The South Pacific country of Vanuatu has been voted the happiest place in the world so what makes its inhabitants such a happy lot?
By Huw Cordey
Series Producer, South Pacific
31 May 2008
Jean Pierre John is living the dream. That popular fantasy of owning one's own island, complete with swaying coconut palms, coral sea and tropical forest, is his for real.
On the island called Metoma, in the far north of Vanuatu, Jean Pierre can look around and truly say that he is master of all he surveys. This single fact would put Jean Pierre in an exclusive club, you would think, one made up of
billionaire businessmen, royalty and rock stars.
But Jean Pierre is none of these things. In fact, he could not be more different. On Metoma, Jean Pierre and his family live in thatched huts. They have no electricity or running water, no radio or television, and their only mode of transport is a rowing boat, which pretty much limits them to trips to the neighbouring island. On top of that, they have little money and few opportunities to make any.
No money?! Suddenly their island life does not sound all that glamorous. But here's the thing, the Johns really are happy. This may sound surprising but living on their island they want for nothing.
All the family's food comes from on or around Metoma. Coconuts, yam, and manioc - their staple diet - are all grown on the island and then, of course, there is a sea full of fish to harvest. And if fish protein gets boring, there is always the occasional fruit bat, from a colony that roosts on the island. Indeed, food is so easy to gather that the family appears to have a lot of relaxation time.
When the Johns do have money - perhaps when they sell one of the few cows they own - they will buy soap powder and kerosene for their lamps. But if not, they are just as happy to make do with island solutions - sticks which can be crushed to make soap and coconut oil in place of kerosene.
Some useful items are even washed up onto their island - buoys from boats are cut in half to make bowls and old fishing nets are recycled as hammocks. It may sound like a Robinson Crusoe existence, and in many ways it is, but the Johns are not castaways. They live on Metoma out of choice.
It is not as if they have not experienced some of the trappings of a more modern world. Jean Pierre grew up on one of Vanuatu's larger islands and still makes the occasional visit. His eldest son, Joe, even went to school in the nation's capital.
In fact Joe, a very easy-going 28-year-old, had recently returned to Metoma to live full time and he told me that the only thing he missed was hip hop music, but that it was a small price to pay for living on the island.
No money worries
Jean Pierre had not heard that Vanuatu had been voted happiest country in the world but, when I told him, he nodded in a knowingly happy sort of way.
So what is his secret of happiness?
"Not having to worry about money," he immediately replies, while picking his nose in an uninhibited way.
If you asked the same question in the UK, you would probably get the same response. The only difference is that, in Jean Pierre's case, it means not needing any money, rather than having bundles of it. We can all repeat the mantra "money can't buy you happiness" until we are blue in the face, but deep down, how many of us in the West really believe it to be true?
But I can see that Jean Pierre's happiness is more than just a question of money. It also comes from having his family around him, and there is undoubtedly an enormous respect between them.
Absence of materialism
His children - and this includes those of adult age - do anything their father asks, not out of coercion but because they genuinely want to please. Forget the Waltons, the Johns are the real McCoy: one happy family.
While talking to Jean Pierre, I find myself wondering whether he is the most contented person I have ever met.
But he is keen to know whether I am having a good time on his island too. Every day he asks me if I am happy. When I tell him things are great, his eyes light up and he replies in pidgin, "Oh, tenkyu tumas."
Whether happiness can truly be measured is a debatable point, but there is no doubt that Metoma - or indeed Vanuatu as a whole - has the ingredients to encourage a greater sense of happiness.
The twin pillars of a classically happy life - strong family ties and a general absence of materialism - are common throughout this island nation.
The simple things in life, it seems, really do make you happy.
Swimming with Jeeps off Vanuatu
Sixty years on from World War II, an act of environmental vandalism is proving to be a valuable asset for the tiny South Pacific nation of Vanuatu
By Nick Squires
BBC, South Pacific
Scattered on the seabed is what looks like the shattered remains of a phantom army. Peering through my diver's mask at first I could make out little more than ghostly shapes. But as I descended deeper into the green-tinged gloom, a bizarre sight unfolded before me. Resting on the seabed were military trucks, up-ended jeeps, and powerful-looking army bulldozers. There were twisted metal girders and rubber tyres, their treads still clearly visible. Half buried in the sand I found a vintage Coca-Cola bottle. I dug it out and slipped it into my wetsuit as a souvenir.
This is Million Dollar Point, one of the world's most unusual diving spots. It is a vast undersea junkyard lying just a few metres off a pristine white beach on the island of Espiritu Santo in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. How it came to be here is one of the stranger stories of World War II.
Before independence Vanuatu was an obscure Anglo-French territory known as the New Hebrides. From 1942 it became the focus of a massive military build-up by the Americans. Half a million or more US troops poured into the tiny colony in preparation for the great counter-offensive against the Japanese. Coconut plantations were cleared, local men were recruited as porters, and the sleepy colonial outposts of Port Vila and Luganville were transformed into bustling military hubs.
Once the war was won, the Americans were faced with the problem of what to do with all the military material they had accumulated. The high cost of shipping made it too expensive to send back to the States. So the Americans offered to sell much of the equipment to the French and British. But the colonial authorities calculated that the Americans would have to leave everything behind anyway, so why pay for it? Their bluff failed in spectacular fashion.
In a fit of pique, the Americans decided to dump immense quantities of supplies instead of giving them away for free. Navy engineers known as Seabees built a jetty and simply drove the unwanted Jeeps, trucks, and bulldozers into the sea.
Sixty years on these weapons of war have become a remarkably rich artificial reef. The abandoned vehicles are encrusted with vivid red and yellow corals. I swam idly past a bulldozer and noticed a pink and blue shrimp perched delicately on the driver's metal seat, where once a GI would have sat. The barrel of an enormous naval gun was inhabited by a cluster of clams. As a couple of flipper kicks took me ever deeper, a lionfish emerged from behind a rusted axle.
An enduring legacy of mankind's most deadly conflict, Million Dollar Point is now an asset to Vanuatu, attracting divers from all over the world.
Many of them take in an equally spectacular dive site a little way along the coast.
The USS President Coolidge was a luxury liner when it was converted into a troop ship at the outbreak of war. In 1942 it was carrying 5,000 men when it accidentally hit two American mines. The quick-thinking captain managed to ground it on a reef, allowing all but two of its officers and men to wade ashore. An hour later, it slid beneath the waves and is now one of the most acclaimed wreck dives in the world.
Those who venture into its flooded decks and cargo holds encounter a weird mixture of civilian luxury - chandeliers, a tiled swimming pool - and raw military necessity, including gas masks and ammunition.
It is not just Vanuatu that is benefiting from the detritus of war. World War II relics can be found on many Pacific Islands.
In Papua New Guinea a guide led me into a patch of jungle which was once a Japanese military airfield. Lying crumpled amid the luxuriant foliage was a Japanese bomber, its ribbed fuselage and skull-like nose cone resembling the skeleton of some great prehistoric beast. Bullet holes showed where it had been attacked by Allied fighter planes as it struggled to take off from the long-forgotten tropical airstrip.
In the neighbouring Solomon Islands, one sea channel is so littered with sunken American and Japanese warships that it is known as Ironbottom Sound. Hellcat fighter planes sit on the ocean floor, their machine guns silenced forever. Where once they were strafed by Japanese Zeros, now they are circled by sharks. Machines designed to take life have instead spawned new life in the South Pacific.
Million Dollar Point may be an indictment of the appalling wastefulness of war. But it has become one of Vanuatu's best known attractions. As such it needs to be preserved just as it is.
As I shrugged off my air tank at the end of the dive, I reached into my wetsuit and threw that scavenged Coke bottle back into the sea. Keeping it just did not seem right. Even underwater junkyards deserve some respect.
Harmony thrives in Pacific isolation
It is one of the world's most remote islands but has a community spirit that is almost utopian, reports Huw Cordey from Anuta in the Pacific.
Sailing from Santa Cruz, in the eastern Solomons, it took us five days to reach Anuta, the smallest permanently inhabited Polynesian island. It was one of the most tedious journeys I have made, the continuous pitching of our small yacht making it impossible to either read or write. So it was with some relief when the speck of land that was Anuta finally appeared on the horizon.
But as the island grew larger, the question of how 300 people could live on such a tiny and isolated piece of land loomed even larger. An outrigger canoe, paddled by two men with another bailing, came
to meet us. The bailer introduced himself as Joseph, who said he would look after us while on Anuta.
He told me he was the island's harbour master, though this is something of a misnomer as the island
has no harbour. Indeed the anchorage is so poor that our boat had to leave a few hours after dropping us off. It is also a job that does not exactly have Joseph rushed off his feet. We were their first visitors in two years.
For a moment though, the feeling of isolation was overshadowed by Joseph's T shirt which was emblazoned with the words "Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas". It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast between two places. Las Vegas, the capital of excess, and little Anuta where even a mirror is considered a luxury. But while Anuta's remoteness may have severely limited the quantity of consumer goods the island's isolation has forged a community spirit that would be very hard to beat.
The Anutans have their own word for this, ‘aropa', which means love and compassion. It is an ideology that is applied to almost everything they do. You can see it at work in the way food and tasks are shared, but it goes further than this.
Bizarrely they even adopt each other's children. Joseph's oldest daughter was adopted by a couple who gave him their son in return a few years later. When I asked Joseph about this, he simply said that it was not an issue as Anutans saw children as communal. What was important was that everyone who wanted a child had one. So if a couple was childless for any reason they would be perfectly entitled to ask another family member or friend if they could have their next child. Both mother and father have to agree but requests are seldom refused.
Aropa also extends to outsiders. During our two-week stay we had at least one meal in every one of the 24 households. Sitting on the floor of each hut we were served communal dishes of fish and glutinous puddings of taro or manioc, all wrapped up in forest leaves. The meals, prepared by the women, were virtually identical from one hut to the other, but this was all about aropa, affection through sharing.
Anutans see a strong similarity between aropa and Christian teachings like "love thy neighbour", a fact that made the work of the first Anglican missionaries rather easier than I imagine they thought it would be.
Twice a day the sound of a conch shell summons the faithful to church. Or to put it another way, everyone. Individuals may backslide for the odd service but attendance is so good it would be the envy of any British vicar.
Once inside the church women sit on the left, men on the right, apparently for no other reason than that is what they have always done. Anutans are very protective of their traditions. All the decisions on the island are, for instance, still made by a single, unelected Chief.
When I asked Joseph what the biggest changes have been in the last 20 years he said "young people playing ukuleles". Was this a problem? I asked rather jokingly. "Well," he replied more seriously, "before the ukuleles the younger generation would dance every evening. Now it is rare." I got the same response from at least half a dozen other adults.
As trivial as this sounds it does make one think about our own, supposedly advanced, society. We worry about our children getting in with the wrong crowd, taking drugs, drinking, teenage knife crime. Anutans worry about their kids playing homemade ukuleles.
On the day we left, a group of men came onto our yacht and with little notice broke into their farewell song, "Sorrow come to us." One of the chorus lines was: "Sorry we will never see your faces anymore." It was enough to bring a lump to my throat. The lyrics had a point however. Anuta's isolation has meant that few visitors ever return.
But then this is probably just as well. The beauty of the Anutan way of life comes from the relative absence of outside influence. In the end it was easy to see what the island's 300 people saw in the place. As a hardened traveller I do not say this lightly, but the Anutans were the most harmonious and hospitable people I have ever met.
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