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Island Earth

This September, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is holding its World Conservation Congress, and this year participants aren’t just flying to the conference in Hawai’i. A few adventurous conservationists are sailing to the meeting, without the standard navigational aids. Their boat is a 62 foot long double-hulled canoe called the Hokule’a that is taking part in a worldwide voyage, building a movement of Malama Honua, or “taking care of Island Earth” that seeks to bring attention to the special relationship between the environment and the people within it (1). For the crew of the Hokule’a, that relationship is particularly important.

Constructed to replicate ancient Polynesian vessels, the Hokule’a has crab claw sails that stretch elegantly upward from masts held in place on the deck with huge wooden blocks (2). A giant carved steering oar takes the place of a ship’s helm. Built with traditional techniques, the wooden Hokule’a doesn’t have a single nail. Instead, “approximately five miles” (3) of line holds the vessel together— an ancient innovation that allows for greater flexibility and durability during long voyages.

More remarkable than the canoe itself, though, is the revitalization of traditional wayfinding practices that have accompanied her construction and voyages. When she was launched in 1976, the techniques of the ancient Hawaiian mariners were thought to be extinct. Many believed the people who settled the Hawaiian Islands found them by accident, lost in the vast Pacific Ocean (4). On a remote Micronesian island, the Polynesian Voyaging Society found a master navigator named Mau Piailug who navigated the voyaging canoe on its voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti, the first time in 600 years the traditional route was completed without instruments (5). Mau trained members of the crew in his techniques, and a renaissance of Polynesian navigation and culture began that spread outward from Hawaii to the far-away shores of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), fueling recognition and appreciation of Polynesian identity (5).

Traditional wayfinding requires an extraordinary level of environmental awareness. Navigators use a mental “star compass” (6), but they also must be in tune with the motion of the waves and the presence of clouds and birds. According to Voyaging Society leader Nainoa Thompson, Mau learned his techniques from a grandfather who would take the one-year old boy “to the tide pools… to sit in the water and sense the subtle changes in the water’s movements…to connect himself to that ocean world” (5). By closely observing patterns in their natural surroundings, navigators can keep the canoe on course even far out of sight of landmarks.

Navigating a voyaging canoe therefore requires total immersion in the ocean environment, which is why Hokule’a’s environmental advocacy is so fitting. Pacific islands are some of the first places to feel the effects of climate change (7), and without enhanced efforts to protect the ocean, sea level rise and disastrous loss of biodiversity will occur. For native Hawaiians, this would be a loss of natural resources and a terrible blow to their ancient cultural heritage (8). On her worldwide journey, Hokule’a is building relationships between communities and institutions that will advance sustainable management of ocean resources in the islands and around the world. As the World Conservation Congress begins, Hokule’a is a timely reminder that we are all responsible for caring for our “Island Earth”.

A juvenile Hawaiian monk seal rests on a beach, photo credits: Mark Sullivan/NOAA Fisheries

A juvenile Hawaiian monk seal rests on a beach, photo credits: Mark Sullivan/NOAA Fisheries


Marine Conservation Institute will be in attendance at the World Conservation Congress supporting the message of Hokule’a with the Global Ocean Refuge System initiative designed to catalyze strong protection for at least 30% of the ocean on “Island Earth”. Will you be at the Congress? Come by and visit our booth!

Please consider supporting the proposal by the native Hawaiian community to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and protect the important natural and cultural heritage of the Hawaiian Islands. To learn more about Hokule’a’s mission and voyage, visit


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Photo of Hokule’a taken by Kate Connors