14 Fun Facts to Know About the Marquesas Islands

by Janis on January 13, 2018

Friends on the 2018 Viking World Cruise will be visiting Taiohae on the island of Nuka Hiva — the largest of the Marquesas Islands. We were curious to learn more about the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific Ocean that make up one part of French Polynesia.

Nuka Hiva, Marquesas Islands14 Fun Facts to Know About the Marquesas Islands

1. The Marquesas Islands are some of the world’s most remote islands. They are about 3,000 miles from the west coast of Mexico, the nearest continental land mass. The Marquesas are 850 miles northeast of Tahiti.

2. The Marquesas Islands form one of the five administrative subdivisions of French Polynesia, which is considered an overseas collectivity of France. Taiohae — a settlement on the island of Nuku Hiva — is the capital of the Marquesas Islands administrative subdivision.

The Marquesas Islands

The Marquesas Islands

3. There are 15 islands with a combined land area of 405 square miles that make up the Marquesas Islands group. Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Hiva Oa, and Fatu Hiva are the major islands. All the Marquesas Islands are of volcanic origin, except for Motu One.

4. Temperatures in the Marquesas are stable year round, with average daily temperatures ranging between highs of 83°F to 87°F, with average daily lows ranging between 72°F and 76°F. Rainfall, however, is highly variable, ranging from 100+ inches on windward shores and mountains to as low as 20 inches in the “desert” region of Nuku Hiva.

Stone tiki on Nuku Hiva Island in the Marquesas archipelago.

Stone tiki on Nuku Hiva Island in the Marquesas archipelago.

5. Recent research suggests that the Marquesas Islands were colonized rapidly between 1025–1120 AD by native people from West Polynesia, leading to development of a “remarkably uniform culture, human biology and language.” The islands’ rich environment supported a large population, who lived on a diet of fish and breadfruit supplemented by cultivated crops.

6. The islands were given their name by Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña, who stopped at Fatu Iva on July 21, 1595. He called the islands Los Marquesas after the wife of the Viceroy of Peru.

United States Navy Commodore David Porter's fleet off Nuku Hiva in October 1813.

United States Navy Commodore David Porter’s fleet off Nuku Hiva in October 1813.

7. During the War of 1812, American Commodore David Porter claimed Nuku Hiva for the United States. On October 25, 1813 Captain Porter sailed his fleet to the island for repairs before continuing his raid against British shipping.  Captain Porter renamed Nuku Hiva “Madison’s Island” after President James Madison. On November 19th, Fort Madison –constructed on a hill next to Massachusetts Bay– was the site of an official U.S. flag raising ceremony with a declaration that the United States had officially laid claim to the island. In December 1813, Captain Porter left Nuka Hiva to continue raiding British whalers.

Captain Porter, who intended to sail back to Nuka Hiva, was captured at the Battle of Valparaíso on March 28, 1814. His claim on Nuku Hiva was never ratified by the United States Congress.

8. In 1842, France conducted a successful military operation on behalf of native chief Iotete and laid claim to the whole group of islands.  France reestablished control over the island group in 1870, and later incorporated the Marquesas into French Polynesia.

9. Of all of the Polynesia, the Marquesas suffered the greatest population decline from diseases brought in by Western explorers.  With no immunity to infectious diseases as smallpox and measles, the eighteenth-century population of more than 78,000 inhabitants declined to 20,000 by the middle of the nineteenth century, and to only 4,000 by 1900.  By 1926, the population reached an all-time low of 2,255 residents. Since then, the Marquesas population has continued to increase, reaching 9,346 inhabitants at the August, 2017 census.


10. Living in the Marquesas inspired American novelist Herman Melville’s first bookTypee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, first published in 1846. The book is a romantic account of his experiences with  of the people of Taipivai. Melville is better known for his 1851 whaling novel, Moby-Dick.


The grave of Paul Gauguin in Atuona, Marquesas Islands, is topped with a sculpture of Oviri. Photo by Christopher Brown

The grave of Paul Gauguin in Atuona, Marquesas Islands, is topped with a sculpture of Oviri. Photo by Christopher Brown.

11. Noted French artist Paul Gauguin spent the last years of his life in the Marquesas. He lived in Atuona on the island of Hiva-Oa and was buried there following his death in 1903.


12. In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, the Marquesas Islands are used as a place of exile for persons who think independently and have been identified as dangerous by the World State.


13. The Marquesas Island group is mentioned in the lyrics of the Crosby, Stills & Nash song Southern Cross: “off the wind on this heading lie the Marquesas.


14. In November 2001, the Marquesas island of Nuku Hiva was used as the filming location for the fourth season of the reality television show Survivor 4 Marquesas, airing in the United States in 2002. The Marquesas Islands, originally a backup location were for this season, were used when the original location, Jordan, was discounted as a result of the September 11 attacks and Middle East political situation.

Have you visited the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia? What fun fact can you add?

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