05/08/2015 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Hawaiian Canoe's Global Quest

Leading explorer and marine biologist Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue says the ocean is not too big to fail. Can one small canoe's journey make a big difference?


Navigators sailing aboard the traditional Polynesian sailing canoe Hōkūleʻa are using ancient voyaging knowledge to bring people together to protect our oceans and environment. Using traditional wayfinding with only stars, wind, waves and other cues from nature to find their way, these intrepid voyagers from Hawaiʻi and islands throughout the Pacific Ocean have sailed 8,000 nautical miles to date and are en route to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. Seeking "stories of hope" that blend traditional and new technologies and worldviews to restore the health of our environment, today's navigators are a diverse group of individuals united by a common goal to find a sustainable future. Their journey to find and share stories of hope from around the world has inspired people to send in messages from places as diverse as Bangalore, Kurdistan, and New York. The growing network of "stories of hope" is now part of the voyage's interactive map of its journey around the world.

Marine biologist and oceans activist Dr. Sylvia Earle sat down with the Polynesian Voyaging Society to talk about Hōkūleʻa's ability to create a "lei of hope" for the world's oceans.

"I fell in love with the ocean when I was a little girl, but it's hard not to fall in love with the ocean. I'm basically a biologist. I think little kids start out naturally interested in all kinds of life and critters. I just happened to have continued with that kid-like curiosity and sense of wonder. Most of life is in the ocean, so I could not resist diving in.

Historically the ocean has been something that divides people throughout the world, but it's also been the great connector. Long before there were aircraft, ocean highways were connecting people. Hōkūleʻa is maybe the miracle we need to impress on people how everyone is connected. The ocean is the cornerstone of life. It's our life support system.

The way it's currently going, we are destroying the very systems that keep us alive. When I was a young scientist, the thought was that the ocean was too big to fail. Now we know that not only is the ocean in trouble but so is all of nature: land, air, and the fabric of life--the world's waters, both inland and ocean. They are changing because of what we as humans are doing. Only about five percent of the ocean has been seen beneath the surface, let alone explored. We've invested in going into the skies above--and we should, it's important--but we've neglected the ocean, and it's costing us dearly.

I think the good news is, the hopeful thing is, that we can see this for the first time. This is the first time anyone in all of history has been able to see this. We have the view from high in the sky to deep in the sea. This is a magic time and Hōkūleʻa is truly a beacon of hope. While a lot of people have been sailing around the world, this is something much more than that. It is a movement. The leadership involved with Hōkūleʻa have been building for their lifetimes, and the lifetimes of those preceding them, toward this moment: to be able to pull together and pull the world together. It's truly a mission of peace. We have to make peace with nature and peace with the ocean as the underpinnings of peace among ourselves.

Hōkūleʻa I think of as a prayer made real. A hope for being able to connect everything from the past to a future that can truly be a place where humans can live and prosper. The ocean keeps us alive, and we now have to return the favor. As Hōkūleʻa circles the world, I love the idea that it will be like a living lei surrounding the world and bringing ... hope."

Dr. Sylvia Earle is a founding member of the OceanElders, an independent group of global leaders who have joined together to serve as a catalyst in the conservation and protection of the ocean and its wildlife. These individuals use their collective influence, supported by science and data, to promote ocean conservation, pursue the protection of the ocean's habitat and wildlife, and preserve its ecosystems and species biodiversity. For more information, visit