Pacific Ocean

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The ocean from St Paul's Point, Pitcairn
The Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean is the largest of the oceans of the Earth. It extends from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Southern Ocean (or, depending on definition, to Antarctica) in the south and is bounded by Asia and Australia in the west and the Americas in the east.

At 63.8 million square miles in area, this largest division of the world's oceans, covers about 46% of the Earth's water surface and about one-third of its total surface area, making it larger than all of the Earth's land area combined.[1]

The Royal Navy maintains a continuous presence in the ocean and conducts joint exercises with the United States Navy.[2] During the War, the Pacific Fleet was a major force in defeating the Japanese.

Many of the coasts and islands of the Pacfic Ocean were once part of the British Empire, and remain within the Commonwealth: Canada on its north-eastern shores and Australia on its south-western and New Zealand and many other islands of the South Pacific are Commonwealth countries. One British overseas territory remains in the ocean: the Pitcairn Islands, remote and alone in the vastness of the seas.

The coast of Henderson Island

The equator subdivides it into the North Pacific Ocean and South Pacific Ocean, the Pitcairn Islands falling within the latter. The Mariana Trench in the western North Pacific is the deepest point in the world, reaching a depth of 5,966 fathoms (35,796 feet).[3]


It is not known when the first Britons saw the Pacific Ocean: Englishmen might have been numbered amongst the clutch of mediaeval merchants to Mongol Empire and China who could have visited western coasts of the Pacific, known to the ancients as the Oceanus Sericus (the Chinese Ocean" or "Silken Ocean"). The earliest known reference to the ocean in English is in King Alfred's translation of the work of Paulus Orosius, which in slightly confused geography says "benorþan þæm porte is se muþa þære ie þe mon nemneþ Ottorrogorre; þone garsecg mon hæt Sericus".('North of the town is the mouth of the River Ottorrogore; the ocean is the Sericus).[4]

The peoples of Asia and the Polynesian islands have travelled the Pacific Ocean since prehistoric times: the Polynesians crossed the vast waters in astonishingly vulnerable craft by our standards, settling islands as far as Pitcairn Island during what in Europe was the Middle Ages. Pitcairn and even Henderson Island were inhabited perhaps up to the 15th century, as far as archaeologists can tell from the sparse remains found, then deserted after a collapse in the Mangareva Island society which supplied its trade; when the Bounty mutineers arrived in 1790, Pitcairn appeared virgin territory.

The eastern Pacific was first sighted by Europeans in 1513, when Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama; the same year that the Portuguese reached China on the western side of the ocean. The first ships to cross the Pacific Ocean were those of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, entering through the straits which bear his name south of the American continent (and it was he who named the ocean "Pacific" from the favourable winds he found here in contrast to the storms of the straits).

In 1578, Sir Francis Drake entered the Pacific Ocean, discovering Cape Horn and the Drake Passage, and raiding Spanish shipping and settlements along the Pacific coast. Drake then crossed the ocean, the first Briton to do so, seizing a Spanish treasure ship out of Manila on the way, and completed a circumnavigation of the world.

It was Spanish explorers in the 17th century who discovered many new islands in the ocean, including Pitcairn. The Duttch followed them, discovering New Zealand and Australia.

James Cook sailed the South Pacific extensively in the late eighteenth century, greatly adding to British understanding of the ocean and its islands, and claiming territories for the Crown.

It was the nineteenth century which saw the greatest swallowing of islands into the Empire, in rivalry with the French, and later the Americans and Germans.


Islands in the Pacific Ocean are of four basic types: continental islands, high islands, coral reefs and uplifted coral platforms.

Pitcairn itself is an example of high island, uplifted in volcanic activity. Henderson is an uplifted coral platform, which is to say a coral island formed on top of a volcanic rock platform. Oeno and Ducie and coral atolls; rings of coral reef around a central lagoon, though again on the same volcanic uplift as Pitcairn.

The coral reefs of the South Pacific, like Oeno and Ducie, are low-lying structures that have built up on basaltic lava flows under the ocean's surface: the most dramatic is the Great Barrier Reef off northeastern Australia, which James Cook discovered and had reason to curse when it holed the Endeavour.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Pacific Ocean)


  1. "Pacific Ocean". Britannica Concise. 2006. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
  2. Operation RimPac – Royal Navy
  3. "Japan Atlas: Japan Marine Science and Technology Center". Retrieved 4 July 2007. 
  4. 'The Old English Orosius' (Bately, Janet ed.) The Early English Text Society, 1980. ISBN 0-19-722406-7
  • prepared by the Special Publications Division, National Geographic Society. (1985). Blue Horizons: Paradise Isles of the Pacific. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society. ISBN 0-87044-544-8. 
  • Cameron, Ian (1987). Lost Paradise: The Exploration of the Pacific. Topsfield, Mass.: Salem House. ISBN 0-88162-275-3. 
  • Igler, David (2013). The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-991495-8. 
  • Oliver, Douglas L. (1989). The Pacific Islands (3rd ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1233-6. 
  • Terrell, John (1986). Prehistory in the Pacific Islands: A Study of Variation in Language, Customs, and Human Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-30604-3.