The voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa sails with Cape Town, South Africa, in the background.
Hōkūleʻa will be one of two double-hulled voyaging canoes attempting to circumnavigate the Pacific Ocean using traditional Polynesian wayfinding techniques in 2023. Credit: Polynesian Voyaging Society

About 7,000 years ago, seafaring people from what is now Taiwan proceeded to incrementally populate specks of land peeking above the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. The descendants of these first oceangoing explorers eventually made their way to central Polynesia, with later generations sailing to the corners of the Polynesian triangle: Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Aotearoa (New Zealand). All of this they did without GPS, much less maps and compasses. But as the needs of island peoples changed, long-distance interisland voyaging eventually diminished prior to the arrival of Europeans, said Aymeric Hermann, an archaeologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

In the 1970s, a diverse group of ocean enthusiasts formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) in Hawaii, setting their sights on reclaiming this lost skill. They built Hōkūleʻa, a double-hulled voyaging canoe named with the Hawaiian word for the star Arcturus. In 1976, master Micronesian navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug guided Hōkūleʻa from Hawaii to Tahiti using only the stars, Sun, and signs from Moananuiākea, the Hawaiian word for the Pacific Ocean. After more than 40 years of open-ocean voyages, Hōkūleʻa continues to sail, along with PVS’s other vessel, Hikianalia.

Now, PVS master navigators (along with a new generation being trained in the skills) are preparing for an ambitious new voyage. Hōkūleʻa and Hikianalia will tentatively depart from Alaska in 2023 for a 42-month, 66,000-kilometer sojourn to 345 different ports across numerous Pacific countries and Indigenous territories.

The Moananuiākea Voyage will circumnavigate the Pacific following a clockwise route.
The Moananuiākea Voyage will travel the circumference of the Pacific in a clockwise direction. Credit: Polynesian Voyaging Society

The Moananuiākea Voyage aims to draw attention to rising seas and changing winds that acutely threaten low-lying islands dotting the Pacific. In preparation for the trip, navigators and crew plan to conduct voyages of permission, which may include a spring 2022 sail to Tahiti, said Polynesian Voyaging Society navigator Lehua Kamalu. “That ancestral migration route is harkening back to the maiden voyage of Hōkūleʻa.”

“We Are the Compass”

Navigators learn to see, hear, and feel their way to islands thousands of kilometers away by looking for signs and patterns not only in the stars but also throughout the natural world, said Kamalu. The presence and behavior of animals, wave patterns, and winds, she said, “are telling as to where you might be and where you’re headed.”

Lehua Kamalu navigates the Pacific.
“We are the compass,” said Lehua Kamalu of traditional navigators like herself. Credit: Polynesian Voyaging Society

After years of training, Kamalu has led various voyages, including one to San Francisco and another from Tahiti. She can handily thread her charge through the open ocean, resting on the deck in lieu of sleeping, listening for the canoe’s creaks that signal subtle changes, watching the weather, and eyeing the sky that guides her. “We are the compass,” she said of traditional navigators.

“We’re smart enough to have gotten here based upon the knowledge of our ancestors.”

When looking for the Tuamotu Archipelago (an array of coral-tipped atolls on the way to Tahiti in French Polynesia), for instance, navigators must scan the horizon, as the islands barely rise above sea level. They look down to the ocean for the fuzzy surface of coconut trees and up to the clouds for reflections of shallow lagoons, said navigator and coastal geomorphologist Haunani Kane. “We were actually looking for the tips of coconut trees because that’s the tallest part of the island,” she said of her first voyage to the archipelago. Kane, who has been navigating since high school, plans to participate in upcoming voyages.

When the wind dies and swells cease to guide the way, moments of self-doubt often arise for apprentice navigators, said Kane. But then, the island comes into view, reaffirming that “we’re smart enough to have gotten here based upon the knowledge of our ancestors.”

Indigenous Science

Upon Kane’s first voyage to the Tuamotus, she recalled the strength exuded by the Tuamotuans as she listened to them speak of managing storms and rising water, which contrasted with scientific literature that painted the islands as a fragile place.

Voyaging throughout her Ph.D. (in Earth and planetary sciences at the University of Hawai‘i) showed Kane a disconnect between those “grandfathers of Pacific geology,” often hailing from landlocked regions, and the coastal communities directly affected by sweeping scientific statements pertaining to sea level change. “[Some scientists] don’t consider how those statements impact island people, their identity, and their connection to these places,” she said. “Our identity as island people is connected to our land,” a truth she discovered for herself through voyaging. “That really shaped…the way that I tell the story.”

Instead of scaring communities with warnings that “your most sacred place is going to be gone in 50 years,” Kane, other climate scientists, and projects like the Moananuiākea Voyage try to offer guidance about the implications of rising sea levels, as well as solutions and adaptations. “For example, healthy reefs not only feed island people but also buffer impacts from storms and flooding by providing sediment to beaches experiencing erosion and reducing wave energy that reaches the shoreline,” she said. Projects like the Moananuiākea Voyage encourage communities and municipalities to conserve reefs for health and safety as well as for food and the economy.

“If you’re committed to [voyaging], we’re committed to having you [as] part of this group.”

Now an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science based in Hawaii, Kane continues to collect reef and sediment samples for her research, but she does so with an Indigenous perspective at the fore. As the PVS navigators conduct voyages of permission, Kane also follows specific protocols when conducting fieldwork, like asking the place and the elements for knowledge, stating her intentions, and thanking the place upon departure. “We try to carry out those same intentions when we’re back in the lab,” she said, and her team often returns samples to their sites of origin.

Navigators of the Moananuiākea Voyage, as well as residents of the ports they visit, will have to adapt to changes in weather patterns resulting from a warming world, Kane said. Hurricane season will become less predictable as storm paths and timing shift, she continued. “As those patterns change, we have to be able to change as well.”

But that won’t stop Kane, Kamalu, and others from sailing. By the end of the Moananuiākea Voyage, the Polynesian Voyaging Society wants to inspire the next generation of 10 million navigators. “If you’re committed to [voyaging], we’re committed to having you [as] part of this group,” said Kamalu.

—Alka Tripathy-Lang (@DrAlkaTrip), Science Writer

Citation: Tripathy-Lang, A. (2022), Navigating the Pacific with wind, waves, and stars, Eos, 103, Published on 24 February 2022.
Text © 2022. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0