Deepwater Wonders of Wake: Exploring the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument

Lending a Traditional Voice to Modern Ocean Exploration

By Debi Blaney, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research
July 30, 2016

Somewhere on a remote Pacific Island, a woman holds up her iPad to show a video of a newly discovered jellyfish to her village elders. The elders watch the video in amazement. While they come from an ancient culture of traditional seafaring and navigation, the beauty of the images and the wonder of discovery enthrall them.

With every dive, the ocean reveals new secrets in the deep waters of their own “backyard.” The footage comes from NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and was taken on a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dive during the previous expedition. The elders, many of whom have never left their island, are often wary of technology and rely on younger generations to be a conduit to the modern world.

“We have never seen that kind of jellyfish before!” marvels Genevieve Cabrera, a cultural historian of UIU Micronesia Inc., and a native of the Northern Mariana Islands. She is happy to help her elders participate in the ongoing dialogue surrounding ocean discoveries. “For Pacific Islanders, the ocean is at the root of our cultural identity and is considered a member of the family,” Cabrera says. “We have a relationship with the ocean, and, by definition, this relationship is never stagnant.”

The dynamic of this relationship includes adapting to advances in our knowledge base and technology, and herein lies the importance of modern-day ocean exploration for Cabrera: it allows her and her fellow Pacific Islanders to consistently nurture the nuances of their relationship with the ocean. As such, technology helps them to reinforce and rediscover their maritime cultural legacy and helps to bridge the generation gap. “The young share what technology allows both young and old to see, and the elders' recounting our ancestral stories, elicited by the visual experience, allows for deeper comprehension and appreciation for our maritime heritage,” she says.

However, Cabrera is also mindful of other effects advanced technology can have. Her culture views the ocean as a life force and humans act as its stewards and guardians, governed by a deep-rooted respect for the environment—a sentiment Cabrera feels is diminishing in an increasingly technological world.

She regrets that the modern world often feels distant from nature. “We still have the truths our ancestors gave us and continue to make our native ways viable,” she says. “We have distanced ourselves, thinking those ways are too basic and elementary, but they are not. In their basic components lie wisdom and opportunity for greater viability as a human race.”

Pacific Islanders often refer to the ocean as Mother Ocean, but they do not think they own the ocean, or any land for that matter. In fact, they feel they belong to it. This profound respect for nature is evident everywhere in Pacific Islanders’ daily lives. For example, Cabrera says, “Our language has a unique word for each developmental stage for each species of fish, and we know how many juvenile fish to take in order to maintain a healthy population. We only catch what we need to ensure we can still eat tomorrow.”

Traditional navigation on display: Traditional canoes sailing from Satawal to Saipan to attend the Festival of Pacific Arts in May and June 2016.

Traditional navigation on display: Traditional canoes sailing from Satawal to Saipan to attend the Festival of Pacific Arts in May and June 2016. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deepwater Wonders of Wake. Download larger version (jpg, 1.8 MB).

That regard for sustainability can sometimes be neglected as economic pressure drives our use of ocean resources. While many people are aware of the ocean’s importance for survival and of the human threats affecting it today, they often do not share the same intense connection and respect Pacific Islanders have for the ocean. Yet, global behaviors can directly affect Pacific Island nations.

Ed Young, retired Deputy Director of the National Weather Service Pacific Region and longtime resident of the Island of Oahu, elaborates: “Island existence is all about living in balance with what Mother Nature provides us. Climate change and sea level rise leading to increased impacts of inundation from coastal storms create a direct threat to small island nations. Their footprint as sources for global pollution is minimal, but the impact it has on them is disproportionately huge.”

Bill Thomas, Senior Advisor for Islands, Indigenous and International Issues at NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management and a native of Hawaii, also stresses the familial relationship Pacific Islanders have with the ocean and their environment in general. “The ancient Hawaiian chant of creation talks about the formation of water, the islands, and life,” he says. “The fundamental stories of where we come from are similar across indigenous cultures, and always stress the relationship between land, water, sky, and human community. The sense of a strong connection to the environment comes from a need to sustain ourselves. Most indigenous cultures share fundamental viewpoints of sustainability of the human condition, because people on islands have nowhere else to go. It is important to understand the ocean as a whole, as resources are limited and collaboration among humans and with the ocean are important for everyone’s survival.”

The work of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) is one variable in a larger equation to increase knowledge and awareness about our environment. The ancestors of Pacific Islanders sailed on canoes across huge expanses of ocean to explore what lay beyond the horizon – into the unknown. OER continues that longstanding tradition of ocean exploration. Modern technology allows us to go deeper and further than anyone has before to acquire and share new knowledge and transcend geophysical boundaries.

Pacific Islanders and many others feel that the ocean’s finite resources must be protected and preserved. Cabrera concludes: “Humanity is at this crossroads in our relationship with our ocean and our planet. We need to return to the basic essence of our relationship with Mother Earth.” Her village elders would surely agree.