Cousteau, Hawaiians Set Sail to Raise Awareness

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 21, 2003
Editor's Note: Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society is on a
film expedition in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to raise
awareness about the need to protect the region's unique biodiversity
for future generations. This is the third
National Geographic
News feature to showcase the islands and the expedition.

On board a modern research vessel laden with cutting-edge scuba gear and high-definition video cameras, Jean-Michel Cousteau is documenting a 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) long chain of remote islands and coral reefs in the tropical Pacific Ocean to raise awareness of its uniqueness and the need for its protection.

Hot on Cousteau's trail a group of native Hawaiians will sail from Kauai in the main Hawaiian Islands to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe on a mission to restore the Hawaiian concept of malama—caring—to the land and sea to ensure a balance among all forms of life.

The native Hawaiians will rendezvous with Cousteau at Kure, the most northwestern of the islands, said Pat Duarte, President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Honolulu. The documentary, called Voyage to Kure, will weave the story of the two voyages around the central theme of malama.

"We share the same mission, the same vision [as Jean-Michel Cousteau]," said Duarte. "For us, the voyage to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is about raising awareness of environmental issues in Hawaii. For Jean-Michel Cousteau it is about raising environmental issues for people throughout the world."

Voyage to Kure is scheduled to air in fall 2004 on public television. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are currently proposed to become the U.S.'s 14th National Marine Sanctuary, a designation that would help protect the region and thus help protect humankind, according to Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society.

Duarte's crew will set sail for Kure in September aboard Hokule'a. The boat will be guided by navigators who steer without instruments or charts, but rather by using the natural signs revealed in the winds, waves, and stars. This ancient Polynesian navigational technique is known as wayfinding.

Cousteau and his crew of 22 are already in the islands, exploring the mid-ocean ecosystem that native Hawaiians view as their ancestral home. The adventure can be followed via the Web site of the Ocean Futures Society (see link at the bottom of this page).

Ancestral Home

"Uninhabited by living people today, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are home to both deceased humans and their uhane (spirits)," said Edward Haleahoha Ayau, a member of the Hawaiian native group Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawaii Nei (Group Caring for the Ancestors of Hawaii).

"When the islands were settled, I can't say, but it occurred in wa kahico—ancient times," said Ayau. "After they were settled [on the main islands], families continued to go up to fish there, to get away, but mainly for spiritual ceremonies."

Archaeologists have dated agricultural, habitation, and religious sites on Nihoa and Necker islands to the 7th century. Chants and oral traditions suggest native Hawaiians also visited other islands and atolls in the chain.

Necker is also known as Mokumanamana. Mana is the Hawaiian word for spiritual power, and thus hints at the island's special meaning among ancient Hawaiians. As well, 33 religious shrines have been found on the island, suggesting its spiritual significance.

Nihoa, which is 130 miles (210 kilometers) northwest of Kauai in the main Hawaiian Islands, contains religious shrines, ancient dwellings, and agricultural terraces that archaeologists estimate would have been sufficient to support approximately 150 people. The islands were abandoned around 1500 for reasons not fully known, said Duarte.


The Polynesian Voyaging Society will drop off Ayau and a few others at the islands of Nihoa and Necker Mokumanamana so that they can perform ceremonies to reconnect with their ancestors and demonstrate an acceptance of their responsibility to care for the land and oceans of the Northwestern Hawaiian islands.

"The people that came before us made mistakes too, but they also knew a lot about the ocean and land and what it took to care for the ocean and land," said Duarte. "There are lessons we can learn from them."

Ayau said that native Hawaiians began to lose connection with their ancestors when Westerners came to Hawaii in the 18th century. "The West influenced our ability to live life as Hawaiians…our lifestyle changed," he said. "As our lifestyle changed, we lost sight of our responsibility."

According to native Hawaiian thinking, Ayau said that each person has a responsibility to care for the dead. In turn, the dead protect the living by providing them with spiritual and physical nourishment.

"They are grandparents, we are grandchildren," said Ayau. "We want to demonstrate we understand our relationship, we understand our duty and are capable [of carrying] out that duty responsibly."

Ayau's group was formed in 1988 to make sure their ancestors were properly cared for. They have stopped developments at ancient burial sites on the main Hawaiian Islands and have reclaimed ancestral remains from museum collections and reburied them on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

"When you put ancestors in the land, they nourish the land physically with their bones and spiritually with mana," said Ayau. "The thought of knowing our ancestors are back in the land creates a kind of peace and confidence in knowing that they are where they are supposed to be. When the reverse is true, all the opposite happens."

Voyage to Kure hopes to highlight the need to restore the concept of malama to all the Hawaiian Islands by contrasting images of the nearly-destroyed coral reefs off the shores of Waikiki on Oahu with images of pristine reefs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

"We will be able to show what it was once like before off the coast of Waikiki," said Cousteau in an interview prior to his departure. Cousteau and Duarte hope Voyage to Kure will inspire Hawaiians and the world to better care for lands and oceans so that balance will remain among all life forms well into the future.

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