Have you ever wondered how, over 1500 years ago, the first Hawaiians discovered their new home, one of the most isolated island chains in the world? Thousands of miles were traversed, without the aid of sextants or compasses as the ancient Polynesians navigated their canoes by the stars and other signs that came from the ocean and sky. Pacific Whale Foundation’s Sunset & Celestial Cruise offers you the opportunity to connect with the night sky of Maui and better understand the role of the celestial bodies in our lives and in Hawaiian culture. Your guide for this journey into the cosmos is local Maui astronomer Harriet Witt, an international award-winning writer and speaker. Fun fact – she began teaching astronomy the same year PWF was founded, in 1980!
I recently went on this trip to experience for myself Harriet’s astronomical insights and view the night sky far from the city lights. Before the trip, everyone is given these handy star maps to give a preview of what you will see.
As we left windy Ma‘alaea Harbor, we were able to enjoy complimentary drinks and pupu while watching the beginnings of sunset, the first of two we would get to see as we traveled west!
Our talk began while dusk settled over the ocean, starting with the nearest star to us — the Sun! While the Sun (Lā) is extraordinary to us, this 27 million degree ball of hydrogen and helium, is actually pretty average on a cosmic level, falling in the middle of a wide range of stars.
Harriet has a unique way with words that allows you to see mundane things in a whole new light. Instead of wishing “Happy Birthday!” to passengers with upcoming birthdays, she offers congratulations on completing another orbit around the sun! She encourages us to consider time as just a point in space that we will never visit again, as we are constantly moving around a star that is moving around a galaxy that is moving in an ever expanding universe. whoa
After the light finally fades, we are welcomed into darkness – the darkness that is part of our planet’s shadow. We often think about night as something that comes to us, but Harriet reminds us that we are the ones entering into a darkness that is always there, the shadow of Earth. It is in this darkness that the light of countless stars and the Milky Way are revealed.
We learn about a wide range of celestial objects that fill the sky, including Jupiter (Ikaika), Māui’s fishhook Manaiakalani, and a peach-colored star directly overhead that has a special significance to Hawaiians, much the same way that the Star of Bethlehem has for Christians. That star in English is called Arcturus and in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) it is known as Hōkūleʻa. Hōkū meaning star and le‘a meaning joy. It is called the star of joy because following it will always return you home to the Hawaiian Islands. It is also the name of the famous double-hulled voyaging canoe that sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti in 1976, using only ancient wayfinding techniques of celestial navigation. Another famous guiding star is Polaris, the north star. If you can find this star at the tip of the little dipper, you have a compass at the ready!
Each culture has its own unique constellations that reflect the mythology of its people, so there is no ‘right and wrong’ when it comes to constellations. Maui’s fish hook constellation is better known to most Americans as Scorpius, named by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy. The Javanese people of Indonesia call this constellation Kalapa Doyong (leaning coconut tree) and in Chinese mythology, the constellation was part of the Azure Dragon. Make a game one night with your family and friends out of coming up with your own constellations!
What do you see?
Our brains filled with new knowledge and new ways of thinking, Harriet bids ‘a hui hou’ (until we meet again), reminding us that, by this time tomorrow, we will have moved 1.5 million miles from where we are right now!