Changing Planet

Hōkūleʻa: Reconnecting to a Sacred Conversation in Samoa

Sunset somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

The Worldwide Voyage has a powerful aura that is difficult to describe. From children who swim out in the water to touch the hulls and walk on the decks, to adults who stand and stare and weep when they see the red sails pulling into their shores, to the bystander who tilts her head, curiously pondering the significance of these canoes, the voyage means many things to many people. As crew members, we carry the mission closely with us wherever we go. This mission—Mālama Honua, caring for Island Earth—is as grand as the idea of a sail around the world itself.

I’ve always found it fascinating how different people connect to Hõkūle’a in different ways. For me, the canoe has always been a symbol of freedom and hope. It is a vision of what the Earth could be and how life should be: a balance between modern and traditional, between generations and cultures.

Master navigator Nainoa Thompson welcomes United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and specialist Dr. Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue, aboard Hōkūleʻa.
Master navigator Nainoa Thompson welcomes United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and specialist Dr. Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue aboard Hōkūleʻa. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

This past week, after sailing a windy passage to the UN Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) Conference in Apia, Samoa, I witnessed just how Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia touch lives beyond the traditional audience of Polynesians. Seeing people like Dr. Sylvia Earle continually come aboard in different parts of the Pacific and then joyfully help to deliver the message of Malama Honua is very humbling. Additionally, getting to sail around Apia Harbor with UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, and hearing how he is willing to rally to get global leaders to support the conservation of oceans, was another eye-opening reminder that the mission of the Worldwide Voyage has gone beyond the shores of Hawai’i and even the waters of the Pacific.

UN Secretary General handling the steering sweep on Hõkūle'a along with crewmember Timi Gilliom. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
The UN Secretary General handling the steering sweep on Hõkūle’a along with crewmember Timi Gilliom. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

However, the most profound experience for me in Samoa came when we went to the residence of the Head of State of Samoa, Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi. During this gathering, he showered us with traditional gifts of tapa cloth and fine mats, and we all shared the gift of music. In essence, it was a graceful-yet-subtle way of letting us go on our way, as all voyagers should. But before he did, he shared with us some his profound thoughts about the Worldwide Voyage that will stay with me well until after this voyage has ended.

Nainoa Thompson (middle), captain of Hõkūle'a, sitting with His Highness (right) and Her Highness (left) as  traditional gifts are presented to the Polynesian Voyaging Society.  (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Nainoa Thompson (middle), captain of Hõkūle’a, sitting with His Highness (right) and Her Highness (left) as traditional gifts are presented to the Polynesian Voyaging Society. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

In this message, His Highness connected Mālama Honua to the deeper understanding that we were put on this Earth, not to rule it but take care of it. We humans act as if we are the masters of the Earth, but our actual responsibility is to be the stewards. In all we’ve done to change our planet, we’ve lost our connection with the notion of stewardship. Thus, through the mission of WWV and connecting with communities around the world, we are getting back to the sacred conversation between humanity and our Creator as to the very meaning of our existence. This message, coming from the spiritual leader of Samoa, left a profound impact on us in such a way that, regardless of our beliefs or background, each crew member felt the gravitas of what His Highness Tuiatua was saying.

As we continue our journey to new places and distant shores, I am excited to see how the significance of this voyage will evolve and how these canoes will continue to touch lives along the way. Leaving Samoa, we humbly carry the gifts and the lessons we’ve learned here with us. Personally, I will pay closer attention to the voices of the ocean when we sail (so that I can position myself a little closer to the majesty of nature) and to how I can ultimately be a better steward for this Island Earth.

Crewmembers participating in the homecoming event of one of our own.  Celeste Ha'o helped to traditionally navigate Hõkūle'a from the Cook Islands to Samoa, like her ancestors did long ago. (Courtesy of Daniel Lin)
Crewmembers participating in the homecoming event of one of our own. Celeste Ha’o helped to traditionally navigate Hõkūle’a from the Cook Islands to Samoa, like her ancestors did long ago. (Courtesy of Daniel Lin)

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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

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