When Hōkūleʻa, a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe, first launched from O’ahu’s Kāne‘ohe Bay on March 8, 1975, her body was brand new—but her spirit was far older.
Before the canoe’s construction, Hawai’ian voyaging culture had been on the verge of dying off. The old ways, once passed down through generations via an oral storytelling tradition, had been slowly lost to modern conveniences and diminished interest. But then along came Herb Kawainui Kāne, an artist, writer, and historian with a deep affinity for Hawai’ian seafaring, who helped stave off cultural extinction by co-founding the Polynesian Voyaging Society and building Hōkūleʻa as a means to both retrace ancestral trade routes and breathe new life into those ancient practices.
We’d go out on these voyages and come to places that look very similar in some respects, and meet people who are also concerned about that idea that maybe our world is changing faster than we can change with it.
The renaissance Kāne helped spark nearly 45 years ago is still going strong today—and now those traditions have found an even bigger audience with the release of Moananuiākea: One Ocean. One People. One Canoe, a full-length documentary about the canoe’s groundbreaking Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, a deep-water circumnavigation of the world that covered over 40,000 nautical miles.
At its core, the Worldwide Voyage was designed with a twofold mission—to pass on traditional navigation techniques to a new generation and to encourage and celebrate global stewardship of the natural world, with an eye toward celebrating and sharing Indigenous knowledge. Moananuiākea traces both of these objectives during Hōkūleʻa’s three years at sea.
We meet a handful of the several hundred people who crewed and supported the canoe over the years, including master navigators Bruce Blankenfeld and Nainoa Thompson, who offer invaluable mentorship to apprentices. And we watch as those apprentices battle seasickness, exhaustion, wicked storms, and doubt to find confidence reading the wind, water, and heavens to find landfall on their own—with some spiritual guidance along the way.
Along with the navigators’ individual journeys, we’re invited to watch the bigger picture unfold as Hōkūleʻa sails between ports and its crew disembarks to share conversation with each area’s Indigenous peoples, while offering their own teachings in exchange. They dive along the Great Barrier Reef to learn about threats to its well-being, visit the Galápagos Islands to hear how its biodiversity is being preserved, and stop in tiny Tangier Island, Virginia, to understand how the political divide of “us versus them” is rendered void when climate change is literally washing in with the rising tide.
Moananuiākea does an impressive job of distilling such sprawling conversations—and a mind-boggling three years’ worth of footage—into a compelling film, and it was no easy task. A rotating crew, including director Nāʻālehu Anthony, writer/producer Bryson Hoe, and editor Maui Tauotaha, shot every single day at sea and in port, sneaking in short cat naps between shooting, editing, and packaging footage, and taking their turns standing watch, often in the darkest hours of night so that they’d be free to shoot the sunrise.
For Anthony—and everyone involved—the experience was deeply personal. He still lives in the same house he grew up in, located on Oahu’s northeast shore in tiny Ha’a’wa. It’s just minutes down the road from where Hōkūleʻa first launched, and the canoe has been a presence in his life since childhood, from elementary school crew visits to college navigation studies to his first voyage, sailing to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 1999. There is a responsibility—and a joy—in sharing even a small part of its story.
“Part of it comes to this idea of kuleana, this idea of responsibility to these storytelling practices of our people. I think the other part is that there will never be a voyage that outdoes this voyage—this is the voyage, right? We took a 60-foot canoe around the whole planet. How do you top that?” says Anthony. “You’ve got to strap rockets to the thing and shoot it to the moon before you get a bigger voyage than this voyage on a canoe. It’s an honor to get to participate in that.”
Here, Anthony shares a little bit more about Moananuiākea and the Worldwide Voyage.
You had to whittle down over a thousand days’ worth of footage to create the documentary—was there anything that got cut that you wish could have stayed in?
All of us who worked on this film on the post side, we all shot legs of the voyage for the film, so there was material that we were all really kind of tied to and smitten with because we were there. [We had to think:] Did it translate through the lens? Does it fit into the broader story of what we’re trying to do? Were some of our main characters there that could help us to articulate what they saw?
After all that, the film was still four hours long, so then we’ve got to start making really, really hard cuts. You don’t want to lose the spirit of what you’re trying to get, but you knew that the thing was just way too fat still.
To me, Indonesia was solid from the standpoint that it had all of these great stories about canoes and sailing. We went to the Borobudur Temple, [where] 2 million carved blocks basically follow the voyage of the Buddha in the eighth century; there are these ships that are carved into the stones representing the ships that carried them across the migratory route to Indonesia—it’s all these parallels of voyaging. We went to the Green School, which was made completely out of bamboo and renewable materials that teaches kids about sustainability—all these great parallels. The hard part was that it didn’t have a lot of our characters there. So it ended up being this idea that, okay, well if the characters aren’t there, then why are we doing this?
What was the biggest thing you learned both during the trip and by creating the film?
I came away with a much more hopeful kind of viewpoint. I mean, living a hundred feet from the ocean means that you’re acutely aware that sea level is slowly creeping towards your home. That can drain a lot of hope from your viewpoint, right? We’d go out on these voyages and come to places that look very similar in some respects, and meet people who are also concerned about that idea that maybe our world is changing faster than we can change with it. What you got more often than not was people who are saying, That’s okay. We’re still going to work toward making it better. And their version of “making it better” can come in the form of many, many, many different things. But the fact that everyone’s trying to make it better means that it’s not just us sailing around in a vacuum; there are people all over the place who are working toward that in their own way, in their own communities.
The film centers Indigenous voices—why do you feel it’s especially important to value and listen to Indigenous peoples on topics of sustainability and conservation?
What I always go back to is just this metaphor of the canoe. In the United States, there’s land as far as you can see, there’s this tremendous amount of resources available to you. You can go to Costco and get whatever you need. You turn on the faucet, the water comes out. You flip a switch and the light turns on. So the immediacy of the whole idea of decline is not necessarily in everyone’s face because of how society is set up to just keep pushing whatever you need in front of you.
On the canoe, that’s a very different thing—you have a finite amount of water, you have a finite amount of electricity, you have a finite amount of “land,” if you’re going to call this floating vessel your island for a month. It’s also finite with respect to the number of people, and the number of people who have certain types of knowledge. Everything on the canoe is finite, and that certainly informs a different perspective as to how you have to operate for your thirty days on board a canoe.
If you think about it, that’s not a new thing for people who sail canoes; it’s a very old thing, right? In Hawaii’s case, there was not one container ship that came here for 2,000 years when it was under the rules and regulations of Native Hawaiians. They found a way to sustain close to a million people on the same set of lands that we now occupy. Now, at any given time, we have six days of food on Oahu. Container ships come every day, again and again and again, and replenish to allow for people to survive here, even though we know that there were people who survived in this place without any of that external resource coming in.
All of that’s to say that this is really just a matter of choices and how it is that you utilize whatever resources you have available to you. And it seems to me that the Native people around the planet have had to do that for thousands of years, so when you’re starting to look at some of the solutions and some of change in how we do things, why not start there and look at some of the ways in which we treat each other, some of the ways in which we treat our land and our resources, to be able to allow for a different perspective on how we value all these things.
What has been the most meaningful part of documenting the Worldwide Voyage?
We were an oral people for more than a thousand years. That storytelling process is what held all of the pieces of our culture as we went through time. What I’m slowly recognizing is that we are just doing that. We were the storytellers for this epic voyage and we are now in this continuum of people who have told stories about voyages that have kept those images—whether they’re images in our mind or physical images that we keep on hard drives now—readily available for people to remind them where we’ve come from and how far we’ve come. And that, I think, helps to set the trajectory as to where we’re going next.
All photos courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society and ʻŌiwi TV