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Isles of Hiva: Geography

Photo right: The Island of Nukuhiva in the Clouds of Dawn



photo of The Island of Nukuhiva in the Clouds of DawnThe group of islands situtated between 7 degrees 50 minutes and 10 degrees 35 minutes south latitude and 138 degrees 25 minutes and 140 degrees 50 minutes W longitude were named "Las Marquesas de Mendoza" in 1595 by Spaniard explorer Alvaro de Mendana after his patron Don Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, Marquis de Canete, Viceroy of Peru (Dening 11). According to Peter Buck, the islands were called Hiva by ancient Polynesians. (Click here for map.)

Three of the six inhabited islands, including the two largest islands, contain the word "Hiva" ("Big Country"): Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Fatu Hiva. In the Marquesan language, the islands are called "Te Enata Henua," "The Land of the People" (Dening 14).

Oral traditions state that the isles of Hiva, located between 740-900 miles NE of Tahiti, were either "fished from the sea" [by Maui] or "born of the copulation of ocean and sky" (Dening 11). The inhabitants saw the islands as a house: "Nukuhiva was its p ointed roof; Ua Pou its support posts, Ua Huka its binding; Hiva Oa its ridge pole; Fautiva its thatching, Tahuata the celebration of its completion" (Dening 11-12).

There are twenty or so islands forming two main groups. The northern group includes the three inhabited islands of Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, and the uninhabited islands of Eiao and Hatutu; the southern group includes the inhabited islands of Hivaoa, Tah uata, Fatuhiva and the uninhabited islands of Fatu Huku and Motane.

The isles of Hiva are much smaller and less populated than the Hawaiian Islands. The two largest islands (Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa) are about the size of Lana'i. Erosion has created deep valleys separated by steep ridges of basalt. The islands are without in land or coastal plains, and some of valleys can only be reached from the sea. There are no offshore lagoons and reefs. The islands, peaks of submarine volcanoes, are exposed to a cold current that flows north from the Antarctic along the coast of Peru and west out into the Pacific. This cold current may account for the poor development of coral in these tropical islands (Ottino 3). The coast is generally unprotected, with few good harbors or beaches. Early inhabitants settled on the bottom land near the m ouths of the narrow valleys.

The temperature in the Isles of Hiva is moderated by the southeast trade winds and the sea. The average temperature is about 86 degrees F; 70-90 degrees F is the usual range (Handy Native Culture 8). Humidity is rarely below 80 percent and rainfall averag es from 30-100 inches annually (Sinoto 111); Rainclouds are brought by the dominant tradewinds, so as in Hawai'i, the windward sides of islands are much wetter than leeward areas, which have dry, desert like conditions. Lower islands (e.g., Ua Huka) or is lands in the lee of high islands (e.g., Ua Pou in the lee of Hiva Oa) get less rain. There is no marked rainy season, though rainfall is most frequent from January to July. Droughts affect the growth and productivity of coconuts and breadfruit. Handy repo rted droughts of four years on Hiva Oa and seven years on Ua Pou (8).