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Sustainability News

April 2, 2019

Nainoa Thompson on boat looking out to seaA Thought Leader Series Piece

By Nainoa Thompson

Note: Hawaiian master navigator Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, gave a Wrigley Lecture in October 2018.

“Nainoa, you have no idea how beautiful your Island Earth is until you see it from space. But we are changing it. It’s going to change us. And we’re not prepared for the change.”

Conversations with one of my best friends and teachers, the late Hawaii-born astronaut Lacy Veach, would often end up this way. He would then say, “You can’t protect what you don’t understand, what you don’t care about.”

To understand the Earth, Lacy urged me to sail around the world on the Hōkūleʻa, a deep-sea voyaging canoe, as the ancient Polynesians did: using as wayfinding tools the stars, the winds, the waves and other cues from nature. No modern instruments. No GPS.

Of course, I couldn’t do it alone. I needed partners and teachers. But if I ever want to get someplace that I know I can’t on my own, I’m going to find people to help me.

To prepare for the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, I trained with a crew from the Polynesian Voyaging Society for six years. We learned everything we could from Mau Piailug, a Micronesian who, at the time, was one of six identified master navigators left in the world. And he was the youngest.

When you looked at Mau, you saw the edge of extinction. He was desperate to make the voyage succeed, as it was his way to help Hawaiians recapture our ancestral identity and culture, and translate that to pride and dignity in a humble way and give it to our children. “If there are no navigators anymore, we will be people no more,” he would tell me.

Training us for the voyage, Mau took us by the hands like children and dragged us through the window of time into the old ocean, the ancient ocean, and nobody else on the planet could do that.

Eighteen years after Lacy planted the seed in me, in 2013, we finally took to the seas.

We left with a vision to learn the Earth, but the journey wasn’t about ourselves. We wanted to use the Hōkūleʻa as a platform to meet as many people as we could and see if we could inspire others to reconnect with nature — and especially the ocean. You can’t protect the Earth if you’re not protecting the ocean: it drives climate, it drives food resources and it drives everything about our existence here.

We also wanted to answer Lacy’s most crucial question: “Is humanity still kind enough to change?”

We sailed 42,000 miles for 37 months to 18 countries. We stopped at 32 ports, first in Tahiti. We made it to Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, the eastern United States; we sailed through the Panama Canal, to the Galapagos Islands, and eventually made it back to Hawai’i.

And we met thousands of people.

I watched them do the best of what humanity can — whether in a watershed, or in a coral reef, or in a fish pond, or in the worst of our slums, or in a classroom, or in the halls of our colleges. They showed me anybody can navigate change.

If you want to make change, don’t worry about the scale. Worry about whether or not you’re going to get up and do something. When you add it all up, every act of kindness and compassion in a community counts.

But we have to move quickly. I’m more urgent now than I was when training for the Worldwide Voyage. I’m more afraid. I’m compelled. I know more. The language of change is so loud now: climate change, sustainability, hypoxia, dead zones, acidification. The list goes on.

I believe that we’re in a race with the things that are changing the world. And I don’t believe that any single individual or institution or country can deal with the enormous challenges that we must face to ensure that the future for our children is worth it — so we need to come together.

Navigating gives me hope. We can sail, connect, learn and share. And we’re learning that the world’s great navigators are not just on the decks of canoes. They’re all around us. They’re at Arizona State University — I’ve met them. We need you to help show us the way. Our children need you.

Nainoa Thompson speaking to hundreds of children on beach
Photos courtesy of Polynesian Voyaging Society

Nainoa Thompson is the president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and a Pwo navigator. Inspired by his kūpuna, his teachers, he has dedicated his life to exploring the deep meaning of voyaging.

Nainoa is the recipient of numerous community awards, including the Unsung Hero of Compassion, awarded to him by His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama on behalf of the organization Wisdom in Action; the Native Hawaiian Education Association’s Manomano Ka ‘Ike (Depth and Breadth of Knowledge) Educator of the Year Award; the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award; the BLUE Ocean Film Festival Legacy Award; the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Marine Exploration; the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal; and the Explorers Club Medal. He currently serves as a member of the Ocean Elders and leads Hōkūleʻa’s Worldwide Voyage.