The largest and oldest ocean basin on Earth, the Pacific has roughly twice as much water as the Atlantic. Yet it didn’t receive the name we know today until the 16th century. On November 28, 1520, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan — after 38 days of weathering the treacherous waters of the strait that’s now named after him at the tip of southern Chile — became the first European to reach the ocean by way of the Atlantic. Happy to have the harrowing journey behind him, Magellan referred to this new ocean as “Mar Pacifico,” meaning “Peaceful Sea.” While the moniker made sense at the time, today we know that both the Pacific and Atlantic can be tumultuous at times.
Yet “Pacific” isn’t the only name this big blue expanse has been known by. In 1513 — seven years before Magellan glimpsed the Pacific — Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa led an expedition across the isthmus of Panama and named the sea he found on the other side the far less poetic “el mar del sul,” or the “South Sea.” However, the most authentic moniker for the Pacific Ocean may be the Hawaiian term “Moananuiākea.” Interestingly, this name — perhaps over a thousand years old — is closely related to the Maori “Te Moana Nui a Kiwa,” meaning the “Great Ocean of Kiwa” (Kiwa being a Maori guardian of the sea). So while “Pacific” is the name most of us now know, it’s certainly not the one used by the people who mapped and sailed the Pacific’s 63 million square miles for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
Most people learn in history class that Ferdinand Magellan was the first person to circumnavigate the globe during his famous voyage from 1519–1522, but the truth is a lot more complicated. For one, the famous (or infamous) explorer never actually finished the voyage from Spain to the Moluccas (Spice Islands), because he was killed in the Philippines in 1521. Another mariner on his expedition, Juan Sebastián del Cano, brought the Victoria, the last surviving vessel of Magellan’s fleet, back to Spain in September 1522. But even if Magellan had survived that skirmish, the first person to actually circumnavigate the globe may have been his slave Enrique, whom he’d purchased during the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511. Eight years later, Enrique served as an interpreter on Magellan’s globe-trotting quest. After Magellan’s death, Enrique abandoned the mission only a few hundred miles short of Malacca. If he returned home in 1521 (we’ll likely never know), then he’d officially be the first person to ever travel the entire globe.