The Pacific Ocean and Its Islands (55+)

If you were in low Earth orbit looking down at the island of Tahiti, and all the clouds were cleared away, you would see almost no land at all—only New Zealand and, at the edges of your view, the coasts of the Americas, Australia, New Guinea and Antarctica. The Pacific Ocean might look as if it’s suitable only for long-distance birds, marine mammals and fish. But this body of water contains some of the most beautiful small islands, the weirdest animals and birds and the most remarkable seafaring culture the world has ever known.

We’ll look at the geography, geology and natural history of the Pacific islands; explore the changes brought about by the arrival of the Polynesians and other peoples; and examine the colonial period up to the present day.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Water, Volcanoes and Coral

Geography of the Pacific basin: continental fragments and 25,000 islands; ocean currents; prevailing winds; typhoons and the monsoon; El Nino and the Southern Oscillation

Plate Tectonics and the Pacific plate: The ring of fire and the andesite line; MORBs and hot spots; Plate boundaries and tectonics; island arcs

Coral reefs and atolls: animal, vegetable, or mineral; the evolution of coral reefs and atolls; uplifted coral islands

Week 2: Flora and Fauna

Children of Gondwana: Australia’s marsupials; New Zealand’s birds and trees; New Caledonia, biodiversity hotspot

Getting to the islands—fish, plants, and birds: Hawai’i, fish from the west and birds from the east; the amazing coconut

Getting to the islands—reptiles, amphibians, and mammals: Galapagos, reptiles and birds from South America; mammals of the Pacific

Island biogeography: diversification, speciation, and extinction; flightless birds of the Pacific; Hawai’i, Polynesia and the Galapagos

Marine mammals and reptiles: turtles; seals and sea lions; whales

Week 3: Human Settlement of the Pacific

Origins of the Pacific peoples: archaeology and culture; linguistics; genetics       

Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia: crossing from Asia; island hopping; deliberate exploration or accidental drift?

The Polynesian navigators: equipment; techniques

Invasive species: Polynesians and their travelling companions; adaptation to a restricted environment; modifying the environment        

A new normal: Australia and the aborigines; Hawai’ian kingdoms; New Zealand and the Maori; Mangareva and Rapa Nui

Week 4: Wooden Ships and Iron Men

The European voyagers: the Spanish and Portuguese; the Dutch; the French; the British; the Russians and Americans

Also on board: goats, pigs, and rats; introduced diseases

Whalers and sealers: Russian Alaska; one in every port—Lahaina, Maui

Disruption of island economics and politics: unifying Hawai’i, Kamehameha the Great; unifying Tahiti, the Pomare dynasty; Tonga is unified but remains independent   

Week 5: The Colonial Period

Missionaries: Catholics and Protestants; Mormons

Colonizers: Spain; France; Britain; America and Russia; Germany and Japan

Nitrates and phosphates: the guano islands; blackbirding

Plantation economies: sugar cane; pineapple; cattle and sheep

Invasive species and loss of biodiversity: Hawai’i, the mongoose; Australia, rabbits and cane toads; New Zealand, stoats and possums; Guam, snakes

Week 6: The Pacific since 1898

European wars become world wars: the Spanish-American War; the Russo-Japanese War; the First World War; the Second World War

The Bomb: an American lake; nuclear weapons testing

Colonial twilight: Britain divests itself of colonial responsibilities; France and the U.S. do not; independence followed by instability

Pacific politics today: economic “colonies”; Australia’s offshore migrant camps; sabre rattling in the north-western Pacific

Restoring paradise: threats to biodiversity and the environment; conservation and restoration

Polynesia as a metaphor: “noble savages” and “cannibal islands”; Robinson Crusoe to The Lord of the Flies; a new metaphor—what can Polynesia teach us about the human exploration of space?

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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