Guest Author - Laura Hartney
There are three primary island groups that make up the tropical islands of the area called Oceania in the Pacific Ocean – Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. This article lists highlights of the islands that form the island group called Melanesia.
Geographically Melanesia incorporates the southern Pacific Ocean islands north and northeast of Australia, from New Guinea on the west to Fiji on the east. Over 5000 islands and islets, with a land area totaling about 386K sq. mi., cover over 500K square miles of water from the South Pacific Ocean to the Coral Sea, Solomon Sea, Bismarck Sea, Arafura Sea, Haimahera Sea, Ceram Sea, Banda Sea and Molucca Sea.
In order of size, the island groups/countries that make up Melanesia are:
Island of New Guinea – 303,000 sq. mi.; population 7.5 million
Second largest island in the world (after Greenland), split in two politically – the eastern half of the island being Papua New Guinea, formerly a territory of Australia, now an independent country since 1975; and the western half of the island, formerly a Dutch colony, now made up of two provinces of Indonesia (Papua and West Papua). Known as one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world, with nearly a thousand different tribal groups, some of which are still considered “uncontacted”. Numerous opportunities for “adventure tours” and “eco tours”. Popular tourist activities include trekking, mountain climbing, surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, canoeing/kayaking, caving, wildlife and bird-watching, visiting World War II historical sites, and learning about the local tribes and cultures.
Islands of Papua New Guinea
Besides constituting half of the island of New Guinea (as described above), the country of Papua New Guinea has several island groups that belong to it. There is not much in the way of tourism facilities on most of these islands; so most tourists enjoy them through island-hopping live-aboard yacht or cruise tours from the main island of New Guinea. The islands include: 1) Bismarck Archipelago – 19,000 sq. mi.; population 472,000; located to the northeast of the main island, part of the “Islands Region”, an archipelago of around 200 islands surrounding the Bismarck Sea, the largest of these islands is New Britain. 2) The Autonomous Region of Bougainville (previously known as the North Solomons) – 3600 sq. mi.; population 175,000; includes the main island of Bougainville plus around 200 outlying islands. 3) The Milne Bay Province, at the southeast tip of Papua New Guinea, includes several island groups in the Solomon Sea totaling more than 600 islands, about 160 of which are inhabited. These include: the Amphlett Islands, the d’Entrecasteaux Islands, the Trobriand Islands, the Louisiade Archipelago, and Woodlark Island.
Maluku Islands – 29,000 sq. mi.; population 2,000,000
Also known as the Moluccas, and historically known as “the Spice Islands” for the growing of nutmeg and cloves; an Indonesian archipelago of over 1000 islands and islets, located just west of New Guinea and east of the main part of Indonesia. Minimal tourist facilities, but known for good snorkeling.
Solomon Islands – 11,000 sq. mi.; population 585,000
A sovereign state (constitutional monarchy), previously a British protectorate, east of Papua New Guinea; bordered on the south by the Solomon Sea and the Coral Sea and on the north by the South Pacific Ocean; made up of nearly 1000 islands and islets with 3300 miles of coastline; mostly rugged mountains with some low coral atolls. Limited tourist facilities but popular tourist activities include scuba diving, snorkeling, World War II historical tours, wildlife viewing and photography.
Fiji – 7100 sq. mi.; population 850,000
An independent nation comprised of over 300 islands, only 106 of which are inhabited, and hundreds of small islets; located at the eastern edge of Melanesia, north of New Zealand; currently under a military dictatorship. Popular tourist activities include snorkeling and scuba diving, whitewater rafting, waterfalls, sea kayaking, learning about the local culture, wildlife viewing and photography, and island-hopping.
New Caledonia – 7,000 sq. mi.; population 260,000
Territorial “collectivity” of France made up of the main island of New Caledonia, the archipelago of Iles Loyaute, and numerous small, sparsely populated islands and atolls; located east of northern Australia and southwest of Vanuatu. Popular tourist activities include exploring the unique flora and fauna, snorkeling and scuba diving.
Raja Ampat Islands – 3000 sq. mi.; population 48,000
Part of the West Papua province of Indonesia; an archipelago of four main islands surrounded by over 1500 smaller islets in the Cenderawasih Bay just off the north-western coast of New Guinea. Minimal tourism facilities; the most popular tourist activity is scuba diving due to the extensive coral colonies and extremely diverse marine life.
Vanuatu – 1800 sq. mi.; population 228,000
An independent nation made up of about 80 islands, 65 of which are inhabited; located east of northern Australia, midway between the Solomon Islands and Fiji; previously known as the New Hebrides islands. Popular tourist activities include snorkeling, scuba diving, exploring the local culture, waterfalls/cascades, and “Zorb” riding.
Schouten Islands – 1230 sq. mi.; population unknown
Part of the Papua province of Indonesia; a group of 3 primary islands plus some smaller ones in the Cenderawasih Bay just off the north-western coast of New Guinea. Popular tourist activities include scuba diving, snorkeling, and bird-watching.
Torres Strait Islands – 220 sq. mi. ; population 8,000
274 small islands, only 14 of which are inhabited; located in the Torres Strait between the northern tip of Australia and the island of New Guinea, connecting the Arafura and Coral Seas; most of the islands are part of Queensland, Australia while a few are part of Papua New Guinea. Minimal tourist facilities. Tourist activities include fishing, snorkeling, wildlife viewing and photography, and learning about the local culture.
Norfolk Island – 13 sq. mi.; population 2300
A self-governing external territory of Australia; unusual in the islands of Melanesia in that it has very little beach space safe for swimming other than Emily Bay – most of the coastline is cliff faces. Popular tourist activities include swimming and snorkeling in Emily Bay, golfing, hiking, and tours of historical sites.
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