Pacific Ocean, largest and deepest ocean, c.70,000,000 sq mi (181,300,000 sq km), occupying about one third of the earth's surface; named by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan; the southern part is also known as the South Sea.
Extent and Seas
The Pacific Ocean extends from the arctic to antarctic regions between North and South America on the east and Asia and Australia on the west. The international date line passes through it. It is connected with the Arctic Ocean by the Bering Strait; with the Atlantic Ocean by the Drake Passage, Straits of Magellan, and the Panama Canal; and with the Indian Ocean by passages in the Malay Archipelago and between Australia and Antarctica. Its maximum length is c.9,000 mi (14,500 km), and its greatest width c.11,000 mi (17,700 km), between the Isthmus of Panama and the Malay Peninsula. The principal arms of the Pacific Ocean are (in the north) the Bering Sea; (in the east) the Gulf of California; (in the south) Ross Sea; and (in the west) the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, and the Yellow, East China, South China, Philippine, Coral, and Tasman seas. Few large rivers drain into the Pacific Ocean; the largest are the Columbia of North America and the Huang He and Chang (Yangtze) of China.
Coastline and Islands
Along the E Pacific shore, generally, the coast rises abruptly from a deep seafloor to mountain heights on land, and there is a narrow continental shelf. The Asian coast is generally low and indented and is fringed with islands rising from a wide continental shelf. A series of volcanoes, the Circum-Pacific Ring of Fire, rims the Pacific basin.
The approximately 20,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean are concentrated in the south and west. Most of the larger islands are structurally part of the continent and rise from the continental shelf; these include the Japanese island arc, the Malay Archipelago, and the islands of NW North America and SW South America. Scattered around the Pacific and rising from the ocean floor are high volcanic islands (such as the Hawaiian Islands) and low coral islands (such as those of Oceania).
The floor of the Pacific Ocean, which has an average depth of c.14,000 ft (4,300 m), is largely a deep-sea plain. The greatest known depth (35,798.6 ft/10,911.5 m) is in the Challenger Deep in the Marianas trench c.250 mi (400 km) SW of Guam. Rising from the plain are swells (many of which are volcanic), seamounts, and guyots; the extensive Albatross Plateau covers most of the SE and E central Pacific basin.
Huge whirls, formed by the major ocean currents, are found roughly north and south of the equator; the Equatorial Counter Current separates them. The northern whirl is formed by the North Equatorial Current, Japan Current, North Pacific Drift, and California Current; the southern whirl is formed by the South Equatorial Current, East Australian Current, West Wind Drift, and Peruvian (or Humboldt) Current. There are many branch and feeder currents that help to constantly circulate ocean water of differing temperatures and salinities.
Commerce and Shipping
The principal commercial fishing areas in the Pacific are found in the shallower waters of the continental shelf; salmon, halibut, herring, sardines, and tuna are the chief catch. Most of the transpacific sea-lanes pass through the Hawaiian Islands; the chief Pacific ports are San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Tokyo-Yokohama, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manila, and Sydney. Since the 1950s many of the South Pacific islands have become tourist centers.
Exploration and Settlement
The Pacific islands of the south and west were populated by migrants from Asia who crossed long distances of open sea in primitive boats, beginning some 3,400 years ago. Polynesian voyagers reached Easter Island, in the E South Pacific perhaps as early as AD 800, by which time they had also reached Hawaii. European travelers including Marco Polo had reported an ocean off Asia, and in the late 15th cent. trading ships had sailed around Africa to the western rim of the Pacific, but European recognition of the Pacific as distinct from the Atlantic Ocean dates from Balboa's sighting of its eastern shore (1513).
Magellan's crossing of the Philippines (1520–21) initiated a series of explorations, including those of Drake, Tasman, Dampier, Cook, Bering, and Vancouver, which by the end of the 18th cent. had disclosed the coastline and the major islands. In the 16th cent. supremacy in the Pacific area was shared by Spain and Portugal. The English and the Dutch established footholds in the 17th cent., France and Russia in the 18th, and Germany, Japan, and the United States in the 19th. Sealers and whalers sailed the Pacific from the late 18th cent., and Yankee clippers entered Pacific trade in the early 19th cent.
See G. Soule, The Greatest Depths (1970); E. S. Dodge, Beyond the Capes (1971); J. Gilbert, Charting the Vast Pacific (1971); V. S. Gorshkov, ed., Pacific Ocean (1976).