Aboard a Hawaiian sailboat, new insights into root of ocean’s problems

The Hōkūleʻa and her sister vessel Hikianalia

The Hōkūleʻa and her sister vessel Hikianalia arrive in Apia, Samoa on a 2014 voyage. (© US Embassy/Flickr Creative Commons)

A version of this post was originally published on the Hōkūleʻa Crew blog.

The smell of bacon and butter greeted me this morning as I emerged from the makeshift cabin that we are each extremely fortunate to call home when aboard Hōkūleʻa. Those on the 6-to-10 watch were at the sweep adeptly steering the Hōkūleʻa in a SSW direction, guided by Mark Ellis, one of the navigators on board.

He estimated that we had traveled approximately 125 miles overnight since leaving port in Balboa. I had been on the earlier 10-to-2 watch crew, lucky to steer during a clear, star-filled night with the north star at our stern and the half-moon on our port side to guide us through most of our shift. The morning crew had to steer with clouds, inconsistent wind and no land to guide their way. They were relying on a rising sun and setting moon, neither of which are the most accurate indicators as they move overhead. When I finished my watch, the sun was rising, the clouds kept changing and the wind kept shifting. Steering was much trickier than it had been the night before with a reliable northern star.

Aulani Wilhelm steering the Hokulea while seas are calm.

Aulani Wilhelm steering the Hōkūleʻa while seas are calm. (© Conservation International)

The deep blue-green waters of Panama continue to carry us toward Malpelo, a tiny volcanic island offshore of Colombia, which we hope to reach in two days. We are privileged to be sailing in a geography referred to as the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape (ETPS), an area covering 750,000 square miles across the marine domains of four countries: Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

The ETPS links a network of marine managed areas including protected areas, fisheries management areas, important migratory routes for threatened and endangered species like the blue whale, and critical nesting and breeding areas for seabirds and turtles, including the critically endangered leatherback. The pelagic waters between these areas are some of the world’s best tuna grounds. Simply put, this seascape is one of the most biologically rich and diverse places on the planet, driven by the convergence of unique underwater mountain chains and nutrient rich, cold water from the Southern Ocean delivered by the Humboldt current.

It is for these reasons, and many more, that ETPS is also home to a cluster of four global marine treasures: Cocos Island National Park (in Costa Rica), Coiba National Park (in Panama), Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary (in Colombia) and the Galapagos Islands (in Ecuador). All four are recognized by the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Heritage sites.


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Many of our Mālama Honua partners like National GeographicMission Blue and Conservation International work in this region, creating groundbreaking science and effective models of conservation, and raising awareness about the importance of protecting these globally important waters from exploitation and climate change.

Despite all that makes this one of the world’s most extraordinary and more resilient parts of our global oceans, it faces significant challenges. Last night as we sailed, Nainoa asked me, “What are the main challenges facing this place? What are the lessons that can help the rest of the world navigate?”

My first instinct was to rattle off the list of conservation challenges that plague our oceans, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; climate change; and pollution.

But those aren’t the problems, they are the symptoms of deeper issues we face … symptoms of human beings becoming increasingly separated from nature; only using short-term thinking; and privileging economic gain over ecological and human health. This has left us with a vastly inequitable reality and an uncertain future for people and the planet.

Luckily, ETPS has a fighting chance at buffering the many assaults our oceans face, thanks to its natural abundance and the many protections and other conservation efforts already underway. In an example of this, last fall the presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador committed to expand their conservation commitments to this special area, including expanding, creating and/or deepening protections within their countries’ respective marine parks. Read more about this incredible commitment on the Conservation International blog.

Further reading

Why did they do it? Because they each understood that ocean conservation isn’t only about protecting species, it’s about ensuring the future economic well-being and health of their people. These actions make oceans part of national development approaches that will help feed and improve the livelihoods of millions of their citizens. It is this kind of leadership and shared understanding about the importance of protecting our oceans that is required if we are to change course and reverse the current trend of decline.

That’s what this tiny canoe and the extraordinary community of people and organizations it has encountered along this voyage are trying to do — connect and grow a global community of people who each, in their own walks of life, will make better decisions, big and small, on behalf
of both people and nature.

The winds have been challenging today — we have had to adjust our course many times to travel downwind and remain on the path to our destination. These lessons from sailing hold true for protecting our oceans — and the first step is being clear on our destination.

ʻAulani Wilhelm is onboard the Hōkūleʻa as a crewmember and is senior vice president for oceans at Conservation International. Read other posts from her Hōkūleʻa voyage. 

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