THE PACIFIC OCEAN IS THE LARGEST geographical feature on Earth. It covers about a third of the Earth's surface, considerably more than all the continents, islands, lakes, and inland seas combined. At the equator it's 10,000 miles wide from the coast of Ecuador to the Asian mainland. The distance from its confluence with the Arctic Ocean to that with the Southern Ocean is more than 8,000 miles. To cross the Pacific--whether by canoe or wide-bodied jet--is to hurtle over a vast abyss punctuated by specks of solid ground, irregular constellations of tiny jewels set in unending celestial blue.
One such constellation encompasses the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a young nation in the very center of this vast ocean. There are over 1,100 islands in the Marshall chain, but if you added all of them together you'd have a parcel no bigger than the District of Columbia. But the Marshalls are not gathered together. They are spread over three-quarters of a million miles of the central Pacific, thousands of miles from any land mass of consequence. The Marshall Islands are remote even from one another.
"Islets" is probably a better word for these tiny, flat, fragile bits of land. Most of them are little more than glorified sand bars, anchored to coral reefs by stands of coconut and long-leafed pandanus trees, grasses, and shrubs. Few are more than a couple of hundred yards wide, and many are considerably narrower. Like the cayes of Belize, they are built of mounded coral sand produced on nearby