aapi heritage

Moananuiākea: Hawaiians' First Name for the Pacific Ocean

Centuries before Ferdinand Magellan named the Pacific Ocean, Hawaiians, Maori and other island cultures had their own names for the sea.

The Pacific Ocean is the world’s deepest, and at roughly 63 million square miles, it covers more area than all the land on Earth.

It’s a huge source of the world’s fish supply and a major factor in the world’s weather patterns.

But you might not know that it wasn’t always called the Pacific Ocean or where the name came from. Or that the name overlooked hundreds of years of cultures who lived on the sea long before we put its name on sports divisions.

How the Pacific Ocean got its name — but is it accurate?

When Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan reached the ocean in 1520, he felt the waters were calm and relaxed. As a result, he called the body of water “Mar Pacífico,” which means “peaceful sea” in both Portuguese and Spanish.

Most maps and textbooks refer to it as the “Pacific Ocean” today. However, the ocean already had several names used among peoples who arrived centuries before Magellan: Tongans, Samoans, Hawaiians, Māori and Tahitians, to name a few.

Today, these groups are referred to as Pacific Islanders.

Names for the ocean before Magellan

Hawaiians use the term Moananuiākea to refer to the body of water you know as the Pacific. 

The Māori name is similar: Te Moana Nui a Kiwa.

In the video above, NBCLX storyteller Peter Hull describes how the Hawaiian and Māori depictions of the sea capture a different quality than Magellan did. You hear a bit of a Hawaiian spiritual chant that pays tribute to the sea’s power, life-giving waters and towering waves.