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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 23, 2009

Palmyra voyage connects the dots

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Nahaku Kalei, 23, was thrilled to get up close with nature during Hokulea's voyage to Palmyra Atoll. "Everything was alive. There were huge ulua and sharks right at the water's edge, plus tons of birds and coconut crabs," she said.

Photos courtesy of the crew of the Hokule'a

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Kalei says the experience of visiting a pristine Pacific Island was eye-opening. While Hawai'i is beautiful, she says, it's just not the same.

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There's no telling what sort of assumed truths may suddenly become self-evident when you're at the helm of a voyaging canoe in the middle of the Pacific.

For 31-year-old Kaimuki resident Angela Fa'anunu, it was this: The world is round.

Fa'anunu was one of a dozen crew members who guided the voyaging canoe's Hokule'a on its 1,000-mile journey south to Palmyra Atoll last week.

After flying back to Honolulu on Saturday, she and fellow crew members Pauline Sato and Nahaku Kalei spent yesterday afternoon at Maunalua Bay reflecting on what was for each a life-changing experience.

"There was one night when I looked out and it was the clearest sky I had ever seen," Fa'anunu said. "I could see all the different constellations Aries, Taurus, Gemini. I could see the path of the sun and the moon. That night was a learning experience because it brought everything together."

And as she watched the stars slowly change positions over the course of her watch, all those lessons she studiously noted in her tablet back home in Tonga suddenly clarified in the night sky.

"I realized, 'Wow, the Earth really is round,' " Fa'anunu said, laughing. "You can study and read books, but when you're immersed in an experience like that, you understand the truth of it in a really intimate way."

That night crystallized many truths for Fa'anunu. She thought about the ancient Hawaiians who understood the stars, winds and tides as never-ending narratives that, for those who cared to pay attention, made sense of the world and how to traverse it. And she thought about her teachers at the Polynesian Voyaging Society who reclaimed that knowledge for future generations.

Fa'anunu, a graduate fellow studying urban and regional planning through the East-West Center, said she hopes to take what she's learned back to her native Tonga to help children there better appreciate their world and to accept responsibility for its stewardship.

For Kalei, 23, the experience of visiting a pristine Pacific island environment was equally eye-opening.

"Hawai'i is beautiful, but it's not the same," she said. "Everything was alive. There were huge ulua and sharks right at the water's edge, plus tons of birds and coconut crabs. It makes you realize that Hawai'i must have been like that, and if we just leave it alone, it'll come back."

That sort of awareness is encouraging to Hawai'i Nature Conservancy outreach coordinator Pauline Sato, 45, who has worked with the Pacific Voyaging Society for 15 years and was a part of the Palmyra crew.

"Seeing the canoe in the lagoon dock so peaceful, that's how it's supposed to be," she said. "For the whole (upcoming) worldwide voyage mission, we want to connect these special places and bring them back so people will understand that we can't lose places like this.

"But it's not just about somewhere else," Sato said. "It's also about where you live, how you're impacting it, and how you can do better. We can talk about how much fun we had, and that's all true, but if it doesn't change anything here then I don't think we've accomplished what we set out to do."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.