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A Sense of Place with Jennifer Kingsley: Navigating by the Stars in French Polynesia

Jennifer Kingsley is a journalist and storyteller who specializes in personal stories from around the world. She is the Field Correspondent for Lindblad Expeditions, a National Geographic Explorer, and an award-winning author who also contributes to the New York Times and National Geographic. She is Canadian. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up

In this series, she offers perspectives on culture and history based on first-hand reporting experience.

Photos by National Geographic Photography Expert Krista Rossow

When you begin to decode something as complex as the heavens, you must begin in simple terms. Tonight, after sunset, Tua Pittman starts with the moon. 

“The round side of the moon always points to the sun,” he explains, so after sunset the moon orients us to the west. Next, he pulls a green laser from his pocket and shines it up towards two bright stars which point to the Southern Cross and show us a path to the south celestial pole. After that, we use the Big Dipper to find north. For due east, we’ll have to wait for Mau’s star, milap, which won’t come up for another two hours.

Jennifer and Tua look to the stars. 

These elegant truths, and hundreds of others, combine to build the power and the practicality of Polynesian navigation. Tua, with white hair and a broad smile to match his broad shoulders, is one of seven living master navigators from the South Pacific Ocean. He is part of a movement that brought the art of Polynesian navigation back to life after colonization nearly stamped it out. On traditional double-hulled voyaging canoes—called vaka, va’a, waka, waa, or vasa depending on which islands you come from—he has traveled over 60,000 nautical miles. 

Portrait of a master navigator: Tua Pittmann in Tahanea Atoll in the Tuamotu Islands.

Tua grew up by the ocean on Raratonga in the Cook Islands. When he was eight years old, his father and grandfather were lost at sea, and Tua was raised to steer cleaer of the water. He didn't consider a life on the ocean until the Hokule'a—the first voyaging canoe to cross the Pacific in generations—came to Raratonga in 1985. He went to the dock every day, watched the crew's every move until they asked him to look after Hokule'a while she was hauled out for maintenance.

When it came time to sail her from Samoa back to the Cook Islands in 1986 for one leg of the Voyage of Rediscovery that traveled from Hawaii to New Zealand and back again, he found himself on board as part of the crew. From there, he became a student of revered Grand Master Navigator Mau Piailug and his protégé Nainoa Thompson until Tua himself was given the title of Master Navigator by Mau in 2008. 

“Navigation is the ability to observe everything that is going on around you and combining that with knowledge,” Tua explains. There are between 150 and 200 stars to memorize, plus countless messages in the clouds, wind, and waves. The colors at sunrise, the birds flying by, the angle of the ocean swell all have something to tell you about your position. And one of the most important skills for a navigator is patience. “If you cannot see the stars, you wait,” he says, “Wait until you know where you are heading.” 

Guests aboard the National Geographic Orion stargaze on deck. 

Navigation is full of metaphors that apply to life both on and off the ocean. So being a navigator is about wayfinding in every sense. As Mau explained to his small group of students, including Tua, “You are not just a navigator, you are the light of your community.” 

Teaching is part of this art, and that became clear to me as I traveled with Tua from the Tuamotus to the Marquesas and back again. For thirty consecutive days, I looked up: at all hours, in all weather, sometimes napping on deck to wait for the next stars to rise. We were on a steel-hulled ship, not a voyaging canoe, yet the lessons transcended the vessel. Watch. Wait. A star will reveal itself and show you the way. 

As I learned to find the cardinal directions by multiple methods and to trace the odd star line through the blackness, I began to sense the complexity of this art. Like the universe itself, it expands into the unknown, balancing knowledge with mystery and requiring total commitment. 

Waiting for the stars to appear in the Tuamotu Islands. 

Over the last 50 years, navigators have been building out their star compass again and returning to chants and oratory to tease out celestial information that was almost lost. In some cases, the names of stars and where they rise are woven into the lyrics of songs that even the elders can hardly remember the meaning of. But singing brings the memories back, and new songs can be written to encode what navigators are relearning.

Today, there are enough voyaging canoes in the world that there is always at least one on its way somewhere, yet most people who see them will be onshore for their departure or arrival. “There are hardships in between,” says Tua, “But now we can understand how our forefathers must have felt. We are able to touch the brilliance of who those people were, and we are bringing honour to them.”

“The stars were always our comfort.”

Read more stories from our field correspondent Jennifer Kingsley >