February 17, 2020

Ocean Sciences 2020 – Plenary by Nainoa Thompson

Posted by Laura Guertin

I’m excited to attend my first-ever Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Diego. I don’t know what took me so long to get to this meeting, especially with my training in marine geology and geophysics (clearly, there is much I would be interested in learning and contributing to!). And even though I haven’t attended any technical sessions yet, I know I’m going to come away from this meeting with new knowledge, fresh pedagogical ideas, and inspirational stories.

On the Sunday before the meeting, I participated in the field trip to Birch Aquarium and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (I blogged about that experience over at my Journeys of Dr. G blog). The highlight for me was being able to see “the building where it happened” – the office/laboratory of Charles Keeling!

The evening was the opening plenary by Nainoa Thompson. This is the description from the conference program:

Nainoa Thompson is the first Native Hawaiian in 600 years to practice the ancient Polynesian art of navigation: long-distance open-ocean voyaging on a traditional double-hulled canoe without the aid of modern instruments. His work has led to a renewed understanding and revival of traditional voyaging arts lost for centuries due to the disappearance of such travel methods and the colonization and Westernization of the Polynesian archipelagoes. As the president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), a non-profit research and educational organization, Thompson recently completed a four-year voyage around the world on the Hōkūleʻa, a traditional, double-hulled voyaging canoe. Through these travels, Thompson and his crew engaged with thousands of people, including world leaders to highlight the importance of ocean resources, cultural legacies, and protection of these critical places in the future.

The opening plenary was recorded and is available on YouTube, embedded below.

Hearing Nainoa Thompson’s stories on bridging science and education in his own voice with his own words was moving and powerful. I provide a short list of some of the soundbytes and takeaways I had.

  • Hawaii is the extinction capital of the world – but it wasn’t that way when Captain Cook arrived in the 1778. He wrote that these separate people were fully sustainable. Now, Hawaii is far from sustainable, with >80% of food and energy coming from elsewhere.
  • In 1926, Hawaii passed laws to ban the teaching of Hawaiian language and culture in public schools. Students were never taught about who they were and where they came from – not knowing they came from the greatest navigators.
  • By the 1950’s and 1960’s, work was being done to put dignity and truth back into the culture.
  • It took some time after Nainoa Thompson started sailing in the Pacific, but by 1985, nine years since his first voyage, Hawaiian language and culture are now taught in schools – the policy and law has changed not just for teaching but also for banning the destruction of water, coral, etc.
  • Lacy Veach, a NASA astronaut and the second Hawaiian to go into space, played an amazing role in Nainoa Thompson’s journey (read Nainoa’s tribute)
  • Through Nainoa’s work, children know how to voyage and know how to come home, because they know who they are. He is working to give kids a different/new sail plan.
  • One of my favorite pieces of information…. when sailing around the world, he sailed to the Everglades instead of Miami because “nature comes first.”

Some of Nainoa Thompson’s phrases that I made note of:

  • The ocean doesn’t separate us, it connects us.
  • Everything is in nature. The question is – can you see it? Can you feel it?
  • Don’t call it a canoe, call it a school – a school of nature, of ocean nature
  • What is going to navigate technology? Good human values. (*said by Lacy Veach)
  • We’re changing Earth, and it is turning around and changing us.
  • You cannot protect what you do not understand, and you cannot understand if you do not care.
  • Where are you, and where are you going? You only know where you are going when you know where you come from.

Thank you Ocean Sciences for providing us the opportunity to hear from such an inspiring speaker to kick off this meeting. May the words of Nainoa Thompson stay with us and guide us during the meeting and beyond.

One people, one ocean – we need to act this way.  —  Nainoa Thompson, Ocean Sciences 2020 plenary, February 16, 2020