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Peopling the Pacific
Using the night sky
Other navigational signs
Making landfall
Voyaging canoes
Voyaging Sources

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Other navigational signs

Stars served as guideposts during the nights at sea, but navigators relied on a large repertoire of skills and observations to guide their vessels during daylight and times of overcast skies. Ocean swells are a steady indication of direction that can be read when nothing is visible overhead. Swells, as opposed to local waves, travel beyond the wind systems that create them. They're generated in the Pacific by steady tradewinds; the result is predictable east, northeast and southeast swells. Monsoons in the western Pacific produce seasonal swells. Swells have long wavelengths, they do not have breaking wave crests, and they are not easily erased, even by extended gales or storms. Navigators learned to distinguish the dominant swell from amongst a mixed pattern of lesser swells and local waves.

While voyaging, swells are experienced as the pitching or rolling motion of the canoe. The pitch and roll is deciphered to read the swell's direction: if the canoe is pitching, the bow or stern is facing the swell; if the canoe is rolling, the swell is coming from the side (abeam). The canoe experiences both pitching and rolling if the swell is at an angle to the canoe; the ratio of pitch to roll is determined by the angle of the swell in relation to the canoe. A navigator's task is to hold the desired angle steady to maintain a daytime course until stars can be used again.

Toward the end of a voyage, a number of new signs appear in the sky and sea indicating the direction of land, including distorted swell patterns. As waves wrap around or bounce off an island, a pattern of refraction or reflection can be felt separately from the primary swell. Cross seas are created in the lee of an island.

Another important indicator of the presence of land is the appearance of homing birds. As navigator Teeta of Kuria noted, commenting in times closer to our own, "Birds are the navigator's very best friends." While the sight range of land itself is only about 10 miles, homing birds can be spotted anywhere from 20 to 50 miles out. Farthest out, a canoe encounters shore boobies traveling in groups of three or four, often accompanied by one or two frigate birds. These birds are not able to touch down or rest on the ocean as their feathers get waterlogged, so they must return to land at day's end. Seeing them is a tip-off that land is nearby, but unless they're spotted in early morning or evening when they're heading out to fishing grounds or flying home, they won't be an indicator of the direction of land. Closer to land - 20 to 25 miles out - mixed flocks of white terns and noddies will be visible.

Migratory birds making flights over long distances may have provided ancient travelers with clues to where unknown lands lay. The long-tailed cuckoo flies annually from Tahiti and Ra`iatea to Aotearoa. The golden plover, or kolea, migrates from Tahiti, the Marquesas and Hawai`i northward to Siberia and Alaska.

In the vicinity of land, clouds take on a different appearance and observation of specific characteristics can indicate to a navigator what type of land lies ahead. Clouds move more slowly over an island then move faster again once the wind pushes them past land. Clouds may reform again and again over an island while the surrounding skies are clearer. Clouds reflect colors from below; they may appear greenish above lagoon islands, brighter white above sand or surf, darker or reddish above a wooded island, or pinkish above reefs.

Another sky phenomenon is the "loom" of land that is not yet visible above the horizon. In cloudless conditions, the sand, reef, or lagoon of an island can reflect a pale column of light up into the sky. This light column can remain visible at night or through rain.

Deep phosphorescence or luminescence is another sign of land. Different from surface phosphorescence, deep phosphorescence appears as "underwater lightning" that flashes and streaks far below the surface. The constantly moving light flashes out from the direction of land and can be seen from 80 to a 100 miles out; it subsides by the time the island is in sight (eight to nine miles out). On dark or rainy nights, deep phosphorescence can be used to steer by.

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