The hidden star of ‘Moana’: the Pacific voyaging canoe


Editor’s note: The fate of the Pacific Islands has always been inextricably linked to the fate of the vast ocean in which they lie — an ocean which faces unprecedented threats.

In the wake of the success of Disney’s new film, “Moana,” in which a young girl journeys across the sea in a traditional sailing canoe, Conservation International (CI), Walt Disney Animation Studios and the Samoa Voyaging Society (SVS) have announced a new partnership to bring conservation education and awareness to coastal Samoan communities. With technical support from CI and the Samoan government, SVS Captain Fani Bruun and her crew will sail between villages on their traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Gaualofa, and present free workshops on basic coastal and marine management. They will also host free screenings of “Moana.”

Human Nature asked Schannel van Dijken, marine program director for CI’s Pacific Oceanscape program, president of SVS and an experienced sailor of va’a (Polynesian sailing canoes) himself, to explain why these boats are so central to Polynesian culture.

Question: How has your experience sailing voyaging canoes affected how you view conservation?

Answer: I have been associated with the Samoa Voyaging Society since I started with CI in 2009. I have always felt connected to the ocean, so it was a natural fit to work with the voyaging society, and I easily gravitated to it. Voyaging is a perfect platform for education and outreach given the importance it holds for communities around the Pacific. The va’a has the power to reconnect our communities to their past and to honor what our ancestors did in migrating across the Pacific, colonizing these small specks of islands in the middle of the largest ocean in the world. The va’a honors the wisdom and expertise they had in doing that and reflects the way they viewed the natural world and the innate harmony they achieved with it. The canoe allows us to remind people of how we once lived, what we were capable of and how we viewed our natural world. By looking to the past, we are able to bring attention to the present, and ultimately to use the past to guide us into the future.

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Q: What do you view as the biggest environmental challenge facing the Pacific Islands? What conservation efforts give you the most hope?

A: There are many challenges in the Pacific. The threats we face include overfishing, pollution, invasive species and of course climate change, which brings increased cyclone frequency, higher water temperatures, ocean acidification and rising sea levels. The critical time for action is now upon us, and we have a number of national and regional strategic plans and policies in place to help mitigate these threats — but in my opinion, the biggest challenge is actually finding the resources and manpower to implement those solutions.

Informing communities about these threats and how they can be mitigated is the key to action, and I’m hopeful about many things I’ve been seeing. Slowly but surely, communities are becoming more aware of the impacts of climate change, invasive species and overfishing, and are taking steps to do something about all these issues. The numbers of community-based conservation efforts, local environmental practitioners and ambassadors are growing. I have heard many stories of action, solutions and leadership. The success of the film “Moana” also gives me hope, as it is inspiring young people far and wide to take responsibility for our waters and lands.

members of "Moana" cast and crew, including actress Auli'i Cravalho, poses with CI's Schannel van Dijken and other members of the Samoa Voyaging Society

Disney’s “Moana” film directors Ron Clements, John Musker, producer Osnat Shurer and lead actress Auli’i Cravalho (middle, in white shirt) pose with CI’s Schannel van Dijken (top right) and other members of the Samoa Voyaging Society (SVS). Thanks to a new partnership, SVS Captain Fani Bruun (in green shirt) and her crew will sail between villages on their traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Gaualofa, and present free workshops on basic coastal and marine management. (© Evotia Tamua)

Q: If you could teach the wider world one piece of Polynesian traditional knowledge, what would it be?

A: The natural world is a gift. I’m reminded of the ancient proverb: we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. Viewing the world in this way and caring for it as an integrated whole is essential if we are to overcome the environmental and social challenges that we face.

Schannel van Djiken is the marine program director for CI’s Pacific Oceanscape program. Jamey Anderson is a staff writer for CI.

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