Schooled by the Sea

A weighted net was a vital tool for catching fish by traditional means.

This deep cultural understanding informs how Hawaiians view the ocean: as mother, as alive, as the membrane that stitches islands together. Know it, and you will understand something fundamental to your place in the world. Master its lessons, and master your life no matter where you go.

The navigators who piloted the first double-hulled canoes to these islands—who trained to know the star patterns overhead to construct a line along which to steer, to sense every shift in the wind before a storm, to feel ocean currents changing in response to lands yet unseen, to read the formations that clouds take over landmasses, and to assess the movement of seabirds moving to and from feeding areas—they were true technological masters. Kala Baybayan Tanaka is among a new generation of navigators who helped guide the Hawaiian voyaging canoes Hikianalia and Mo‘okiha, relying solely on ancient knowledge. (Her father, Kālepa Baybayan, was an early navigator aboard the famed Hōkūle‘a, the first traditional voyaging cnoe built in modern times. Hōkūle‘a’s successful journey to Tahiti and back in the 1970s confirmed the scientific validity of that knowledge.)

Using the model of a canoe, and a toy turtle to represent the sun, Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua education coordinator Kala Baybayan Tanaka teaches students about the Hawaiian star compass, part of the system of navigation used on the open ocean. Photo: Tony Novak-Clifford

For Kala, whose day job is educational coordinator for Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua, Maui’s Voyaging Society, the urge to explore is innately human. “I am rooted in traditional Hawaiian wisdom that allows me to navigate by the practice of intimate observation of my environment.” As a student of navigation, she was taught, for example, to notice the direction seabirds fly. “If [they] come back later fat, you know they’re finding something out there. Because I come from the Hawaiian perspective, I noticed that in school we learned the sciences, but I didn’t see a spiritual connection there. There’s a huge loss when you separate out the spiritual from learning.”



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