American Samoa

Fagaalu Bay

Fagaalu Bay in American Samoa, which is located in the South Pacific. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Wendling)

Turquoise seas filled with exotic fish, moonlit beaches, mountainsides blanketed with tropical rain forests … typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis … invasive species, contaminated water, soil erosion … these descriptions are all wildly different, except that they aren’t talking about different places. All of this imagery describes the same region deep in the South Pacific: the U.S. territory of American Samoa.

Although it was not “officially” discovered until 1722 and was not made a territory of the United States until 1900, archeological evidence shows the islands may have been the first place in Polynesia to be settled, around 600 BCE. Situated 2,300 miles south of Hawaii, American Samoa is made up of a group of five volcanic islands (Tutuila, Aunu’u, Ofu, Olosega, and Ta’u) and two atolls (Rose and Swains). Ninety-six percent of the islands’ human population lives on the island of Tutuila (pronounced Too-too-weela), which is home to both a national marine sanctuary and a portion of a national park. The other sections of the national park are spread across three of the remaining islands and along with rain forest, include protected coral reefs containing more than 250 species of coral and 950 species of fish.

Most of the vegetation cloaking the islands consists of tropical rain forests. The images most people have of tropical rain forests are of tall, dense jungles filled with chattering monkeys, brightly colored birds, snakes, and butterflies. Rain forests, which make up only 6 percent of Earth’s surface, are estimated to hold more than half of all the different species on the planet. Although the hot, humid forests of American Samoa get rain almost daily (receiving a total of 500-800 cm (or 200-300 in.) per year), the rain forests fall rather short in terms of species diversity.  Due in part to their small size, the main cause of low species numbers is the distance the islands lie from any major landmass. Only three native species of mammals are found there and all of those are fruit bats! There are 18 types of land birds and 20 species of seabirds that reside on the islands, including those that are only migratory, and only reside on the islands for a short time period.

skink

The blue-tailed striped skink is one of three skink speces found in American Samoa. (Photo courtesy of Matt Pittman.)

Three species of skinks (a type of lizard), dart across the rain forest paths or hide beneath rotting logs in the forest. About 65 species of orchids make their homes within the rain forests, thriving in the constant dampness, and lianas (woody vines) climb the trunks of trees up into the canopy.

Sadly, like most places thought of as paradises, American Samoa is not without its problems. Tutuila’s main harbor, at Pago Pago (pronounced “Pongo Pongo”), is only now beginning to recover from extreme contamination produced by wastes from the tuna canneries that employ many in the islands. Many of the freshwater streams are polluted as well, with soil eroded from deforested land and with bacterial contamination from pigs that were introduced to the islands as a food source.

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