By Sam ‘Ohu Gon and Russell Amimoto
After nearly three years of sailing the globe, the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe and its crew recently passed through the Panama Canal, and are back into their home waters of the Pacific. We are humbled and excited to join the next leg of their worldwide journey, which starts in the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador and continues to Rapa Nui and back into the heart of Polynesia.
For Hōkūle‘a, the Galápagos mark an important landfall. Like Hawai‘i, this island archipelago is renowned for the diversity of life it shelters. It has also become a showplace for conservation management and environmental sustainability, two goals that lie at the heart of the voyage’s conservation mission.
Naturalist Charles Darwin made the Galápagos famous. During an 1835 visit, he noticed that the islands’ finches, while similar in body and color, had adapted their bill shapes in remarkable ways to deal with different types of foods and habitats. That observation led him to his theory of evolution by natural selection.
In the Hawaiian Islands, our native honeycreepers did the same thing, but to a much more remarkable extent. So did the flowering plants they feed upon. As Darwin noted, the pattern of evolution is most easily seen and understood in isolated island groups. “Of all the places in the world, I would like to see the good flora of Hawai‘i,” he once said. “I would subscribe 50 pounds to any collector who would go there and work.”
A Conservation Model
While the Galápagos and Hawaiʻi both demonstrate the wonders of species’ evolution in isolated island settings, the two archipelagos have evolved quite differently. In the Galápagos today, people have a light footprint, albeit with a smaller population of fewer than 20,000. Almost 98% of the land area is a national park, and the surrounding ocean is a marine reserve. Their primary industry is environmental tourism. Not only do the plants and animals benefit from conservation, so too do the people, whose economic livelihoods depend on it.
Contrast that with Hawai‘i, where our global reputation as an island paradise is more closely coupled with beaches and mai-tais than with our incredibly diverse and special natural systems. Hawai‘i’s ecological richness surpasses that of the Galápagos, and our economy and quality of life depend on the health of our environment, yet we have among the world’s highest rates of species extinctions and endangered species. Our population exceeds 1.4 million, but only a small fraction of our forests and oceans are effectively managed for conservation.
As a society, we seem to have lost our connection to the natural world. For ancient Hawaiian voyagers, their intimate attention to the waves, the stars, the clouds and birds allowed them to understand the complex language of nature and traverse huge distances across the ocean. They were excellent voyagers and navigators, but those same skills also made them superb naturalists, ecologists and landscape managers. At one time, as many as one million Hawaiians thrived here with remarkably low impact, altering just 15% of the lands and waters for their homes and sustenance.
As Nainoa Thompson — navigator and president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society — has told us, if we can recapture our role as expert caretakers of nature, then Hawai‘i, like the Galápagos, can be a model of conservation for the world.
That’s the hope—and the promise—of the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage.
Sam ʻOhu Gon is the senior scientist and cultural advisor and Russell Amimoto is the community coordinator for marine monitoring at The Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi. Both recently joined the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage in the Galápagos Islands.
This op-ed originally appeared in the February 1, 2017, Honolulu Star-Advertiser.