Welcoming Hōkūleʻa to American Samoa With Dr. Sylvia Earle

Dr. Sylvia Earle and Daniel Lin celebrating the ocean on the shores of American Samoa. (Photo courtesy Daniel Lin)

Last week, Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia arrived on the beautiful shores of American Samoa to be greeted by a large crowd and traditional kava ceremony. There to welcome the canoes and crew was none other than National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Dr. Sylvia Earle, who traveled all the way from California to witness the event. Throughout the week that Dr. Earle was on the island, I had the great privilege of learning from “Her Deepness.” We then decided that it would be fun to share our experiences and photos with National Geographic readers.

From my perspective, I have nothing but admiration for the crews that made it safely to American Samoa and gratitude for simply being in the presence of Dr. Earle. Before moving out to the Pacific region five years ago, I cared very little about the oceans and that was because I was largely ignorant of what was going on. If it weren’t for ocean advocates and champions like Dr. Earle, I may still be unaware of the enormous challenges that we face with regards to the conservation of our oceans and, in turn, the preservation of our future. She has made it her life’s mission to ensure that humans care about what they are doing to the oceans. I was one of the many people that she touched and as a result, she has significantly influenced my own life’s mission. 

Hōkūle’a sails under the system of celestial navigation and within that system, navigators are taught to use the stars as guides for reaching their unseen destination. I believe that this is also true for our planet. If we hope to navigate towards a better, more sustainable future for the Earth and its inhabitants, then we, too, must follow the lead of extraordinary people to help guide the way. To this end, Dr. Earle is, and will always be, one of our brightest stars. 

Daniel Lin

By Dr. Sylvia Earle

I have come to American Samoa to greet the Hōkūle’a and her sister ship, Hikianalia, as they continue the voyage around the world. They haven’t left their home territory of the Pacific yet, where Polynesian voyaging canoes historically have traveled. But that is on the horizon.

It was just so exciting to be in Hawai’i with Daniel Lin, my fellow explorer, to see the canoes take off and now to meet up with them, here, thousands of miles away is just magical. Hōkūle’a has sailed across the ocean, using only traditional means—the stars, the currents, and the wind—to guide her. Meanwhile, the escort canoe uses more modern navigation techniques. It’s a wonderful blend to have the ancient ways and modern science working together, bringing a message of hope to places beyond where these canoes have traveled to in the past.

Hōkūle'a crew celebrating as they arrive in American Samoa.  A voyage that has taken this group 53 days from Tahiti. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
The Hōkūle’a crew celebrating as they arrive in American Samoa—a voyage that has taken this group 53 days from Tahiti. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

They’re breaking loose! They’re coming out from their part of the planet with a message. It’s a message of giving back that is really timely. Throughout history, humans have taken from the sea and we still will, because mankind is dependent on the ocean. The most important thing we take from the sea is our life, our existence. It’s not pounds of meat, or barrels of oil from whales and fish, or the fossil fuels that are extracted. It’s the very fact that we exist on this blue speck in the universe, a perspective that we simply could not understand when I began exploring the ocean in the 1950’s.

So now we know what we couldn’t know before and that message is being conveyed by the Hōkūle’a’s crew; a combination of experienced navigators and young voyagers who are learning and will take over this voyaging society at some point. That itself is a wonderful gift to the future, imparting the knowledge and wisdom of voyaging by hands-on experience.

Crews of both canoes wade in the water to request cultural permission onto land.  (Photo by Sylvia Earle)
Crews of both canoes wade in the water to request cultural permission onto land. (Photo by Sylvia Earle)

A Jarring Contrast 

During my stay, I had a chance to go out on a Samoan “Fautasi”, or long boat, with 32 oarsmen and 1 oarswoman. It’s traditional in Samoan culture to go out and meet voyaging canoes such as the Hōkūle’a and her sister vessel, Hikianalia, as they sail in. It was thrilling to sit and watch the strong backs and good minds work together to pull us quickly through the water to greet the vessels. On the way, we passed a huge tuna cannery and it was such a jarring contrast to see traditional vessels that were powered by wind and muscle juxtaposed to several sleek, fossil fuel-powered vessels that are outfitted like warships to fight against ocean organisms. It’s been thought of as an important part of the economy here, but when you really peel back the layers, you see that it’s taking from systems that, if properly cared for, could be an enduring element of the economy. But by taking so much in a matter of decades, it has contributed to the undermining of the integrity of these ocean systems.

Getting to ride in a Samoan long boat out to greet the canoes.  (Photo by Sylvia Earle)
Riding in a Samoan long boat out to greet the canoes. (Photo by Sylvia Earle)
Tuna boats lined up along the shores, outfitted to wage war on the ocean.  (Photo by Sylvia Earle)
Tuna boats lined up along the shores, outfitted to wage war on the ocean. (Photo by Sylvia Earle)

There’s a place for fishing, but not at the scale that we have been imposing over the last 50 years. We are using technologies of war and applying them to locate and capture ocean organisms. Instead, we should be using technology to understand and explore the living ocean.

Diving in American Samoa

During this past week, I’ve also had the chance to dive in two places around the island. For each one, there was good news and bad news. The first place we went to, Fagatele Bay, is completely protected and the corals were in beautiful condition. Getting out there was a bit of a rough passage, but it was worth it! There were great plate corals and mounds of healthy, living coral. But, there was not much in the way of fish, not even one lobster. No sharks, no barracuda, no grouper, no snapper, no parrotfish, no surgeonfish; even the grazers were gone. There were a number of small fish, but even they were not in great abundance the way you would expect in a complete, intact system. That is likely to reflect the years of taking. Now protected, there’s hope that they may recover.

Diving in Fagatele Bay, American Samoa.  (Photo by Sylvia Earle)
Diving in Fagatele Bay, American Samoa. (Photo by Sylvia Earle)
Fellow diver and a true champion of the oceans, Jean-Michel Cousteau, showing the fabric that he pulled from out of the corals off the coast of Aunu'u, in American Samoa.  (Photo by Sylvia Earle)
Fellow diver and a true champion of the oceans, Jean-Michel Cousteau, showing the fabric that he pulled from out of the corals off the coast of Aunu’u, in American Samoa. (Photo by Sylvia Earle)

The second place I got to dive was off the shores of a small nearby island called Aunu’u. It’s fully protected, but sadly it’s not protected from the rain of junk that comes from the surface. It was disconcerting, to say the least, that there among large and healthy plate corals were old tires, heaps of discarded fishing gear, ropes, cloth, cans, bottles, and other junk. I saw one small grouper, one small parrotfish. One each! We were only there for an hour, but if you spent an hour of diving in a place of that sort and not where garbage had been dumped, you would see great schools of fish. It just wasn’t the case here.

The good news is that things are changing. Nations are beginning to shift to an era of awareness followed by protection, and there is an example of hope right here in American Samoa. The Worldwide Voyage of Hōkūle’a is not an expedition like so many global expeditions of the past to go find and take. Rather, it’s an expedition of giving back, an expedition to take care of the ocean that takes care of us.

[This post has been updated to remove specific characterizations of the cause of the closure of a cannery in American Samoa.]

A traditional welcoming party awaited the crews as they arrived on land.  (Photo by Daniel Lin)
A traditional welcoming party awaited the crews as they arrived on land. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Hikianalia (foreground) follows her sister Hōkūle'a into Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Hikianalia (foreground) follows her sister Hōkūle’a into Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa. Next week Hōkūle’a will be sailing to Apia, Samoa for the U.N. Conference on Small Island Developing States. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

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Changing Planet

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A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University