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A somewhat less-than-pious wag once remarked that God made the South Pacific islands on the 6th day of creation so He would have an extraordinarily beautiful place to rest on the 7th day. Modern geologists have a different view, but the fact remains that the islands and the surrounding sea are possessed of heavenly beauty and a plethora of life forms.

From its strategic position in the southwestern Pacific some 5,152km (3,200 miles) southwest of Honolulu and 3,175km (1,972 miles) northeast of Sydney, Fiji is the transportation and economic hub of the South Pacific islands. Nadi International Airport is the main connection point for flights going to the other island countries, and Fiji's capital city, Suva, is one of the region's prime shipping ports and headquarters of many regional organizations.

The Fiji archipelago forms a horseshoe around the shallow, reef-strewn Koro Sea, much of which was dry land some 18,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. More than 300 islands and islets range in size from Viti Levu (10 times the size of Tahiti) to tiny atolls that barely break the surface of the sea. The total land area is 18,187 sq. km (7,022 sq. miles).

The islands were created by volcanic eruptions along the collision of the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. Although the main islands are quiet today, they are part of the volcanically active and earthquake-prone "Ring of Fire" around the Pacific Ocean.

Flora and Fauna

Most species of plants and animals now native to Fiji originated in Southeast Asia and worked their way eastward across the Pacific, by natural distribution or in the company of humans. The number of indigenous species diminishes the farther east one goes. Very few local plants or animals came from the Americas, the one notable exception being the sweet potato, which may have been brought back from South America by voyaging Polynesians.

Plants

In addition to the west-to-east differences, flora changes according to each island's topography. The mountainous islands make rain from the moist trade winds and thus possess a greater variety of plants. Their interior highlands are covered with ferns, native bush, or grass. The low atolls, by contrast, get sparse rainfall and support little other than scrub bush and coconut palms.

Ancient settlers brought coconut palms, breadfruit, taro, paper mulberry, pepper (kava, or yaqona in Fijian), and bananas to the isolated midocean islands because of their usefulness as food or fiber. Accordingly, they are generally found in the inhabited areas of the islands and not so often in the interior bush.

With a few exceptions, such as the tagimaucia found on Taveuni, tropical flowers also worked their way east in the company of humans. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, allamanda, poinsettia, poinciana (flame tree), croton, frangipani (plumeria), ixora, canna, and water lilies all give colorful testament to the islanders's love for flowers of every hue in the rainbow. The aroma of the white, yellow, or pink frangipani is so sweet it's used as perfume on many islands.

Animals and Birds

The fruit bat, or "flying fox," and some species of insect-eating bats are the only mammals native to the South Pacific islands. The early settlers introduced dogs, chickens, pigs, rats, and mice. Fiji has one type of poisonous snake, but it lives in the mountains and is seldom seen. You will see lots of geckos and skinks, those little lizards that seem to be everywhere in Fiji. With their ability to walk upside-down across the ceiling at night, geckos are adept at scaring the devil out of unsuspecting tourists. They are harmless, however, and actually perform a valuable service by eating mosquitoes and other insects.

Most land birds live in the bush away from settlements and the accompanying cats, dogs, rats, and ubiquitous Indian myna birds. Mynas were brought to Fiji early in the 20th century to control insects and are now nuisances themselves (these fearless, aggressive creatures will steal the toast right off your breakfast table!). For this reason, the birds most likely to be seen are terns, boobies, herons, petrels, noddies, and others that earn their livelihoods from the sea. But if you keep your eyes and ears at the ready, you may see and hear some of the 26 species of birds that are endemic to Fiji, such as the barking pigeon, red-headed parrotfinch, and giant forest honeyeater. Taveuni is famous among birders for its orange dove, while Kadavu has its shining musk parrot, fantail, honeyeater, and whistling dove.

The Sea

The tropical South Pacific Ocean teems with sea life, from colorful reef fish to the horrific Great White sharks featured in Jaws, from the paua clams that make tasty chowders to the deep-sea tuna that keep the cannery going at Levuka.

More than 600 species of coral -- 10 times the number found in the Caribbean -- form the great reefs that make this a divers' mecca. Billions of tiny coral polyps build their own skeletons on top of those left by their ancestors, until they reach the level of low tide. Then they grow outward, extending the edge of the reef. The old skeletons are white, while the living polyps present a rainbow of colors. Corals grow best and are most colorful in the clear, salty water on the outer edge or in channels, where the tides and waves wash fresh seawater along and across the reef. A reef can grow as much as 5 centimeters (2 in.) a year in ideal conditions.

A plethora of tropical fish and other marine life fills most of the lagoons, which are like gigantic aquariums. Bookstores in the main towns sell pamphlets with photographs and descriptions of the creatures that will peer into your face mask.

Humpback whales migrate to the islands from June to October, and sea turtles lay their eggs on some beaches from November through February.

The Environment Today

Although pollution, rising seawater temperature, and a proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish have greatly hampered reef growth -- and beauty -- in parts of Fiji, many areas are unmatched in their color and variety of corals.

Fiji has allowed some resort owners to blast away parts of the reef to create marinas and swimming areas, but it has laws protecting its lagoons, which are a major source of food for the locals. Fiji allows but restricts the use of spear guns, so ask before you go in search of the catch of your life.

Sea turtle meat is considered a delicacy in the islands, and Fijians are not above making a meal of turtles despite laws that make it illegal. Do not even think of bringing home one of their shells: Both sea turtles and whales are on the list of endangered species. Many countries, including the United States, prohibit the importation of their shells, bones, and teeth.

You can collect empty sea shells on the beach, but not if they still have live animals inside. Likewise, you can make a souvenir of a dead piece of coral lying on the shore, but you cannot take coral directly from a reef.

Tips: Be Careful What You Touch -- Fiji has laws protecting the environment, so do not deface the reef. You could land in the slammer for breaking off a gorgeous chunk of live coral to take home as a souvenir. The locals know what they can and cannot legally take from under the water, so buy your souvenir coral in a handicraft shop.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.