Coconut Islands 5

Upolu Island, Samoa

The native species of Polynesia are tenacious survivors, having crossed thousands of miles of ocean and eons of biological time before landing on a beach and establishing themselves as a colony. They arrived in ingenious ways. The seeds of some plants traveled in mud stuck on the feet of migrating seabirds or in their feces, and were deposited when the birds alighted upon an island. Small animals floated to Polynesia on rafts of rotting vegetation. Cyclones blew insects and tiny land birds across the Pacific Ocean in what must have been a wild and windy ride over equatorial waters. In the event they survived such passages and established themselves on the islands, reproducing and gaining an evolutionary foothold in their new environments, the founding organisms evolved into entirely new species, taking on unique characteristics that eventually separated them from their ancestral cousins. Their existence in Polynesia is most remarkable because of its improbability.

Sea cave, Niue

Niue Island rises steeply from the sea as a sole uplifted coral rock. Its reef extends outward from the shore only a couple of hundred meters before plunging into a deep oceanic trench. The extraordinary clarity of water, the shapes and colors of the coral and fish, and its unique architecture all make the reef on Niue a truly outstanding place. Narrow channels cut into the coral by ocean currents have created a convoluted watery maze. I followed the undersea passages as they wound among the coral formations toward the edge of the island, and then to a spot where the ocean waves had sculpted caverns into the sides of the limestone cliffs. The openings exposed an interior cave system, and made it possible for me to swim among stalactites and stalagmites — as if I were swimming into the heart of the island.