Legend tells how an eel (te Pusi) and a flatfish (te Ali) were carrying home a heavy rock and began to quarrel. The eel killed the flatfish and fed on his body, just as the tall coconut trees feed on the round, flat islands today. Then te Pusi broke the rock into eight pieces and disappeared into the sea.
The three islands and six atolls that make up Tuvalu together total only 25 square km in land area, curving northwest-southeast in a chain 676 km long on the outer western edge of Polynesia. Tuvalu's 900,000-square-km exclusive economic zone is 34,615 times bigger than the total land area, the highest ratio of its kind in the South Pacific by far. The country's reef area is 10 times greater than all dry land.
Funafuti, the administrative center, is more than 1,000 km north of Suva, Fiji. Funafuti, Nanumea, Nui, Nukufetau, and Nukulaelae are true atolls, with multiple islets less than four meters high and central lagoons, while Nanumaga, Niulakita, and Niutao are single table-reef islands, with small landlocked interior lakes. Vaitupu is also close to the table-reef type, though its interior lake or lagoon is connected to the sea. In all, the nine islands are composed of 129 islets, of which Funafuti accounts for 34 and Nukufetau 37. Ships can enter the lagoons at Nukufetau and Funafuti; elsewhere they must stand offshore.
It's feared that within a century, rising ocean levels will inundate these low-lying atolls and Tuvalu will cease to exist. Coastal erosion is already eating into the shorelines and seawater has seeped into the groundwater, killing coconut trees and flooding the taro pits. Sand mining from the beaches for construction purposes and causeway building is contributing to the problem. Recent spring tides on Funafuti have been the highest in recorded history, and if ocean levels continue to rise, the entire population of Tuvalu may have to evacuate, third-world victims of first-world affluence.