• overview
  • geography
  • history
  • fauna & flora
  • further reading


Explore Vanuatu and the South Pacific

Popular Pacific holiday destination Vanuatu is a unique archipelago of 83 coral and volcanic islands sprinkled across 450,000 square kilometres of the South Pacific Ocean. The population of approximately 250,000 is predominantly rural and of Melanesian descent. The tropical climate ensures food is plentiful and most families grow their own food and enjoy fish as a staple diet. Widely recognised as a premiere destination for scuba divers, tourism provides vital income to the islands, along with agriculture, raising cattle and offshore financial services. Widely known as a tax haven, it wasn't until 2008 when bowing to increasing pressure from international governments, Vanuatu began to allow the release of account information to law enforcement agencies.


Experience this destination by expedition cruising with Heritage Expeditions on the following departures:


A surprising 65 of Vanuatu's 83 relatively young and small volcanic islands which make up the archipelago are inhabited. Most islands are steep, with unstable soils, and little permanent fresh water. The shorelines are rocky with fringing reefs and no continental shelf, dropping rapidly into the depths of the ocean. Many islands have been logged extensively and now suffer from severe erosion and landslides. The highest peak is Mount Tabwemasana which reaches 1,879 metres on the island of Espiritu Santo. The entire region is volcanically active, with several volcanoes in evidence both above and below the water. The threat of eruption has relocated some of the population and continues to be an issue. The largest towns are the capital Port Vila, situated on the island of Efate and Luganville on Espiritu Santo.


From pottery fragments found on the islands, it is thought that people first arrived in the islands some 4,000 years ago. Between the 11th and 15th centuries, Polynesians arrived from the central Pacific in sailing canoes holding up to 50 people, live animals and gardens growing in the boats. Vanuatu’s traditions tell of cultural heroes arriving around this time from islands to the east, bringing with them new skills and customs.

The islands were first discovered by Europeans in 1606 when Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros arrived on Espiritu Santo and called it La Australia del Espiritu Santo or ‘The Southern Land of the Holy Spirit’. He thought he had arrived in Terra Australis or Australia. They were subsequently ‘re-discovered’ in the mid 1700’s by Louis Antoine de Bougainville and Captain James Cook, the latter naming them the 'New Hebrides'. Missionaries from Europe and North America arrived in the 19th century and began the process of converting the inhabitants to Christianity and western ways. Settlers came looking for land to establish cotton plantations, which when the international price of cotton collapsed were converted to produce coffee, cocoa, bananas and coconuts.

The rivalry of French and British interests in the islands brought petitions for one or the other to annex the territory, but in 1906 they entered into an unlikely alliance and formed a joint administration. This unique form of government was called the ‘British-French Condominium’ and administered the islands for many years. By the early 1940’s Melanesians began to challenge this imposed system leading to the establishment of the first political party in the 1970’s. In 1980 the Republic of Vanuatu was created.


Despite its tropical forests, Vanuatu does not have a great diversity of endemic plant and animal species. There are no indigenous large mammals, poisonous snakes or spiders. The 19 species of native reptiles include the Flowerpot Snake, found only on Efate. The Fiji Banded Iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus) was introduced as a feral animal in the 1960's. There are 11 species of bats (3 unique to Vanuatu) and 61 species of land and water birds. While the small Polynesian rat is thought to be indigenous, the large species arrived with Europeans, as did domesticated pigs, dogs and cattle. The region is rich in sea life, with more than 4,000 species of marine molluscs. Coneshell and stonefish carry poison fatal to humans. The giant East African land snail arrived only in the 1970's but has already spread from the Port Vila region to Luganville. Notable bird species include the Vanuatu Petrel, Megapode, Imperial Pigeon, Tanna Fruit Dove and Chestnut-bellied Kingfisher. The Buff-bellied Monarch is an endemic genus.

Australian Ornithologist Mike Tarburton has produced a birdlist for Melanesia which is a useful tool for birders.

Adult saltwater crocodiles can be found living in Vanuatu's mangroves. It is thought that they are blown onto the northern part of the islands from the Solomon Islands and New Guinea during cyclones.

Vascular plant species exclusive to Vanuatu include several palms such as Caryota ophiopellis, Veitchia montgomeryana, Clinostigma harlandii, Heterospathe uniformis, and an endemic genus Carpoxylon macrospermum. Endemic orchids include Dendrobium pseudorarum, Dendrobium mooreanum, Malaxis iwashinae. Other endemic plants include the Variegated Clown Fig Ficus aspera, Gardenia tannaensis, Psychotria aneityensis, Schefflera vanuatu and Geissois denhamii, Polyscias schmidii, the Santo Kauri Agathis silbae, Cyrtandra efatensi, Ixora aneityensis, Claoxylon psilogyne, Alpinia nidus-vespae and Kermadecia lutea.

Vanuatu is included in the Vanuatu Rain Forests terrestrial ecoregion and the East Melanesian Islands biodiversity hotspot.



Birds of Vanuatu by Heinrich L. Bregulla

Cavorting With Cannibals: An Exploration of Vanuatu by Rick Williamson

Ethnology of Vanuatu: An Early Twentieth Century Study by Felix Speiser

Gender, Christianity and Change in Vanuatu: An Analysis of Social Movements in North Ambrym by Annelin Erikson

Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu by J. Maarten Troost


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