The Marshall Islands – or the Republic of the Marshall Islands – is a collection of 1,225 islands and atolls scattered across the Pacific Ocean. It’s the sixth smallest sovereign state in the world, but the country is spread across 750,000 sq. miles (1,942,491 sq. km) of ocean – an area roughly the size of Mexico. Despite its deserted beaches and superb scuba diving, it’s the second-least visited country in the world, so if you’re looking for an offbeat paradise, you might want to hotfoot here. Tempted? Take a look at our cheat sheet on the most interesting facts about the Marshall Islands before you book your trip.
Interesting Facts About the Marshall Islands
1. The islands are made up of 870 reef systems and 160 coral species
There are 29 separate atolls in the Marshalls, containing a total of 1,225 islands, 870 reef systems and 160 species of coral. It’s one of only four atoll nations in the world. Most of the islands are so narrow that there’s just one road running the entire length of them.
There are no native mammals in the Marshall Islands, but the country is brimming with marine life, including more than 1,000 species of fish.
2. Foreign powers ruled the islands for centuries
Micronesian navigators first arrived on the islands in around 2000 BC. They named them ‘Aelon Kein Ad’, or ‘our islands’. In 1521 the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan and the Spanish Miguel de Saavedra became the first Europeans to visit the islands. A long period of colonisation followed.
In 1592 Spain formally claimed the islands, the Germans annexed them in 1885 and Japan captured them in 1914. In 1944 US forces took control for over three decades. The country gained formal recognition in 1979 and officially became the independent Republic of the Marshall Islands in 1982.
Captain John Charles Marshall visited the islands in 1788 when sailing through the region with convicts bound for New South Wales. From then on, western charts documented the islands as ‘Marshall’.
3. The US still controls the security and defence of the Marshall Islands
The US provides millions of dollars in aid annually and still controls the security and defence of the islands. It also rents out the Kwajalein atoll as a base and missile test range. A number of islands are off-limits due to US military presence.
As a result, the Marshall Islands is one of 22 countries without a standing military.
4. It’s home to the world’s largest shark sanctuary
In 2011 the Republic of the Marshall Islands created the world’s largest shark sanctuary. Officials introduced new legislation to ban commercial shark fishing in all 768,547 sq. miles (1,9990,530 sq. km) of the nation’s waters. Only Palau, Honduras, Tokelau, the Maldives and the Bahamas have made similar commitments.
The Marshall Islands is home to a high diversity of sharks, many threatened with extinction.
5. The US used the Marshall Islands for nuclear testing for years
Between 1947 and 1994 the Marshall Islands became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), a United Nations trust territory administered by the USA. During this period, the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak were used for extensive nuclear weapons testing. The US detonated 67 atomic bombs on the islands between 1946 and 1958. It also dropped the first-ever hydrogen bomb from a plane in 1954, blowing up whole islands in the process.
By the late 1960s, authorities had started raising serious concerns about dangerous levels of radiation on the islands. In 1969 the USA began decontaminating Bikini Atoll and evacuated islands. Many of those exposed to the high levels of tradition developed severe health problems. The USA also created a huge concrete dome to bury over 87,782m3 (3,100,000ft3) – the equivalent of 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools – of radioactive soil and debris.
6. They’re under serious threat
With a mean elevation of two metres, the Marshall Islands has one of the world’s lowest average elevations. This, combined with the effects of global warming, means that the Marshall Islands are at serious threat. At least 40% of existing buildings in Majuro are under threat from rising sea levels. According to the World Bank, at least 96% of the city is also at risk of frequent flooding.
7. It’s the world’s fourth most obese country
At least 83.5% of the adult population of the Marshall Islands is officially overweight. Unhealthy western lifestyles, combined with a genetic predisposition, has been a key contributing factor. With the arrival of US influences, islanders turned their back on traditional diets of fresh fish and vegetables and replaced them with highly processed and energy-dense food. The Marshall Islands is now the world’s fourth most obese country. In 2016, 52.9% of the population was classed as obese.