A Gathering of Wayfinders of the Pacific

National Geographic’s 2012 Explorers’ Symposium ended yesterday.  It was a mind-bending, week-long exploration fest.  Yet, despite the most daring and innovative presentations illustrating the technology and development of the metropolitan world (and there were many), I couldn’t help but reflect on the brilliance of native cultures from the world’s most remote regions.

Consider this: before GPS, before sextants, even before compasses, Polynesian non-instrument navigators also known as wayfinders sailed across thousands of miles of ocean.

Until 1500 A.D., few Europeans had ventured out of sight of land yet indigenous mariners of Oceania had been sailing the nearly 20 million square miles of Oceanic seas in double-hulled canoes for more than a thousand years.


How Did They Do It?

Polynesian navigators  had a sophisticated technology all their own.  Their specialized science, now referred to as wayfinding, was a system of observation that synthesized patterns in nature and allowed seafaring cultures to navigate with keen accuracy.  The shape and sequence of waves, the rising and setting of stars, even the flight patterns of specific birds served as instruments for the wayfinder.  Intimately wedded to his environment, the navigator employed a highly developed facility  for observation, memorization, and integration.  These skills required a lifetime of study and commitment.  In the Hawaiian system, the training was so rigorous that few apprentices ever achieved the rank of kahuna ho’okele, navigator-priest.

Wayfinding is a revered science and a priestly profession that links the cosmos, sea, and land.  In generations past, the initiate had to be not only a superior wayfarer but also a healer, leader, and interdisciplinary scholar in subjects as diverse as astronomy and botany.

Master Navigator and Mentor Piailug with Elizabeth Lindsey. Photo by Alice Humbert.


An Extraordinary Gathering

Today I leave for Vanuatu where I’ll board a Polynesian voyaging canoe bound for the Solomon Islands.  Weather permitting we’ll leave Vanuatu’s Port Vila on the summer solstice stopping briefly on Meskelyne before landing at Honiara.  We’re sailing to the Solomons where more than 3,000 cultural practitioners from more than 27 countries will gather.

Join me for the next three weeks as I share stories of masters from the Pacific who, like my mentor renowned wayfinder Pius “Mau” Piailug, live by the wisdom of stars.


Follow Along

Read All of Elizabeth Lindsey’s Posts

Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey Profile

Human Journey


Meet the Author
The first Polynesian Explorer and female Fellow in the history of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY, Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey is an internationally recognized expert in the emergent field of cultural intelligence – a dynamic, holistic system of knowledge and wisdom based on indigenous science. Elizabeth’s keen insights and first-hand accounts from around the world have made her keynote addresses an inspiring call to action. A sought after speaker in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Pacific, her audiences have included: Oxford University, Harvard University, Stanford University, TED, YPO/WPO, the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian. Dr. Lindsey is an advisor to world leaders and global institutions serving on such boards as the Tibet Fund for his Holiness the Dali Lama and the United Nations Ambassadors’ Islands First. In 2010 she received the Visionary Award from the United Nations for her contributions in intercultural engagement and understanding. She’s preparing to sail on the voyaging canoe “Hine Moana” from Vanuatu to the Solomon Islands. And will be reporting from the ocean.