It’s easy to forget about time when you’re here, even if it plays such a big role on this collection of volcanic islands. Look around you and it’s all just blue. The sky is electric blue. The sea is baby blue. The lagoons are turquoise. It feels like the best shades of blue were created solely to be used here. There are other colors too, but they only exist to help accentuate the azure. White sands separate the warm waters from emerald green hills that stretch all the way to the streets of the country’s capital, Pago Pago (pronounced Pahngo Pahngo). You only experience one season here: summer. The weather doesn’t slide under 28.9°C (84°F) or stray over 30°C (86°F). The last place on Earth is also one of the most stunning places on Earth. This is American Samoa. Located in the South Pacific, the island nation is the last inhabited land mass where the clock strikes midnight. Halfway between Hawaii in the north and New Zealand in the south, American Samoa is known for its rich blue hues, its historical sites, its beaches and its relationship with time.
By Tavita Togia, National Park Service — NP of American Samoa.
Staying up to date
Without sounding like a high school geography lesson, we’re going to talk about the International Date Line (IDL) before we get back to American Samoa. The two are closely entwined. We all know that time is an invention, a figment of our collective imagination. It’s a set of ideas that seek to help human beings better experience our everyday lives. The IDL is one of those many ideas. It’s an imaginary line that stretches from the North Pole to the South Pole, cutting through the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The IDL was established in 1884 during the International Meridian Conference held in Washington D.C.
The idea is that when you cross the Date Line, you either gain or lose a day depending on which way you’re heading. If you are heading westward, you gain a day. If you are traveling eastward, you lose a day. Since the IDL isn’t an actual line, it is fluid. It can, and has, been shifted around by countries to suit their needs. This doesn’t require the agreement of other countries, or the blessing of a governing body. Countries can decide for themselves. All they have to do is publicize the event and inform the international community. In 1995, Kiribati decided to build greater economic ties with Australia and New Zealand. That’s why it extended the IDL eastward to encompass the nation’s far-flung eastern islands, creating a “time dent” on the map. Samoa made a similar move nearly two decades later. Something that would change American Samoa’s destiny.
The great leap into the future
The island nations of Samoa and American Samoa used to be united until they were partitioned in the late 19th century. In 1892, Samoa shifted its time zone, jumping from the western to the eastern side of the International Date Line to be in sync with traders from California. But in 2011, Samoa vaulted back onto the western side because the country was increasingly doing business with Australia and New Zealand. And so the nation that used to market itself as the last place on Earth to see the sunset hopped over the Date Line to become the first country to greet the new day. In doing so, Samoans lost an entire day, leaping from 29 December straight to 31 December. Which means 30 December 2011 never existed for Samoa. All of this also meant that American Samoa officially became the last place on Earth to see the sun set. And since then, the island has proven that being last isn’t so bad.
The International Date Line is only a few kilometers away from American Samoa, so when you’re at a beach on the western side of the country, you could say that you’re gazing into tomorrow. And if you’ve ever wanted to celebrate the New Year (or your birthday) twice, you could travel 35 minutes by plane from Samoa to American Samoa, which is 24 hours behind its neighbor. So you could view the last place on Earth as many things: a true blue paradise, an island nation or a wormhole that lets you travel to the future and back into the past within just 35 minutes. Who needs time machines when you’ve got American Samoa?