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Marshall Islands Travel Guide

The Marshall Islands is a nation of five islands and twenty-nine atolls in the South Pacific, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The islands and atolls are grouped into two chains, Ratak and Ralik. Two-thirds of the population (about 40,000) live in the nation’s capital, Majuro, and the populous island of Ebeye.

Few of the islands rise more than 5 ft. (1.5 m.) above sea level. The highest point on any of the islands, 34 ft. (10 m.), is found on Likiep Atoll of the Ratak Chain. The atolls are coral rings whose beaches partly or totally enclose bodies of water called lagoons. The three islands of Delap, Uliga, and Darrit (D-U-D Municipality), on the Majuro Atoll, serve as the nation's capital. Causeways link the atoll's southern islands with a road that runs 35 mi. (56 km.) from end to end. More than one-third of all Marshallese live here. Most work in tourism or for the government.

These islands were first settled by the Micronesians in 2000 BC. In 1526, the Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar discovered the islands, but it wasn’t until 1885 when the first Europeans, namely a German trading company, actually settled on the islands. During WWI, Japan conquered the Marshall Islands, but it came under U.S. occupation and control in WWII. After the war had ended, the United States added the islands to its territories. And the Marshall Islands did not gain independence and full sovereignty until 1986 when it entered into a Compact of Free Association with the United States.

Today, although the country is attracting more and more travelers each year, the Marshall Islands remain an obscure tourist destination. It’s unfortunate because these islands offer visitors a multitude of riches – picture coral reefs, white powdery beaches and turquoise lagoons, lush tropical greenery, multicolored plumeria flowers, coconut and papaya plantations, and pandanus and breadfruit trees. In addition, much of the pre-colonial customs and traditions of the Marshallese remain alive and well for you to observe and appreciate.

In particular, the Marshall Islands are perhaps the perfect place to snorkel and scuba dive. The islands’ coral reefs teem with bio-diverse marine life. You’ll be able to observe numerous unique species of fish and coral – some 1000 species of fish and 250 species of coral. The underwater visibility is also excellent around the various atolls and there are numerous steep drop offs, channels, and coral pinnacles in and around these ocean waters. The Bikini Atoll is a particular hotspot for divers because your eye-candy is not just limited to the interesting marine life that fill the lagoon but also the historic remnants of a number of sunken U.S. and Japanese ships and aircraft carriers. The Kwajalein Atoll is a fairly popular dive spot as well, being the final resting grounds of Hitler’s Prinz Eugen, a Germany Heavy Cruiser that fought alongside the Battleship Bismarck.

The Marshall Islands are also known for its sport fishing (angling, fly-fishing, etc.) with some 750,000 square miles of ocean waters that are swarming with thousands of different species of fish. There are various inshore reef fishes, freshwater fishes, open water fishes, and deep sea fishes that can be targeted.

For the best wind and sea conditions, the best time to go is from May to October. The weather is also milder these months and you should be able to avoid largely any typhoons.

Almost entirely Micronesian, the 43,000 Marshallese inhabit 24 of the 34 atolls and islands scattered over about 772,000 sq. mi. (2,000,000 sq. km.) of the Pacific. More than 60 percent of all Marshallese live on the Majuro and Kwajalein atolls, where jobs are available in government, tourism, or in support of the U.S. missile facility.

Sizable groups also live on Arno, 35 mi. (56 km.) from Majuro, and on Ailinglapalap and Jaluit, in the Ralik Chain. The people on Jaluit grow bananas and breadfruit and export copra, seashells, and handicrafts. The 56 islands of Ailinglapalap Atoll are where the paramount chiefs of the Ralik Chain traditionally lived. Most of the other inhabited atolls and islands have between 90 and 1,000 people. Marshallese society is organized matrilineally.

Every Marshallese be­longs to his or her mother's clan and has the right to use that clan's land. The head of each clan coordinates clan affairs and acts as a sort of intermediary between the commoners and chiefs, or iroij. The highest of these aristocrats, the paramount chiefs, are called iroij laplap.

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