Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey

This award-winning PBS documentary sweeps viewers into a seafaring adventure with a community of Polynesians, as they build traditional sailing canoes, learn how to follow the stars across the open ocean, and embark upon a 2,000-mile voyage in the wake of their ancestors. 

Wayfinders focuses on the revival of wayfinding — the art of guiding a canoe across long distances using only natural signs: the sun, the moon, the stars and the ocean swells. Nainoa Thompson is the first Hawaiian in hundreds of years to master celestial navigation. By passing on these ancient skills to a new generation of wayfinders, Nainoa begins the process of recovering connections with the past and preparing for the challenges of the future.


Popular perceptions of global exploration, in large part, still reflect a world view held by early European cartographers and geographers. The traditional heroes include Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Captain James Cook. On the other hand, a reference to Kupe, Hotu Matu'a and Mo'ikeha, legendary voyagers who sailed by 1000 AD to, respectively, the distant islands of New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawai'i, would probably evoke no recognition. The film's focus on Polynesian voyaging and settlement will provide a broader knowledge of global exploration, which, in turn, will enhance public awareness of another culture's background and accomplishments.

When European explorers first ventured into the Pacific they were surprised to find that island after island was occupied by thriving societies of people still living in the age of stone. These wanderers from another ocean had themselves just developed ocean-spanning technology, yet they found that islanders lacking metal, and above all ships and navigational instruments, had preceded them into the Pacific.

Where did these people come from, and how did they reach the far islands? Answering these questions has occupied amateur and professional scholars over the last four centuries. It has been a highly interdisciplinary effort: linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists, historians, ethnobotanists, oceanographers, and other specialists have applied their talents to the puzzle. However, what really distinguishes this inquiry is that Polynesians have recently joined in the quest - with a significant difference. They address the problem not as outsiders simply intrigued by an intellectual puzzle, but as descendants of a long lineage of seafarers who explored and settled the Pacific. Focusing upon the voyaging canoe, the artifact that made the migration possible, Hawaiians, Tahitians, New Zealand and Cook Island Maori, and other Pacific Islanders have begun to reconstruct their ancient craft and sail them over the long seaways of the Pacific in order to rediscover their oceanic heritage.

Written, Produced and Directed by Gail K. Evenari Edited by Yasha Aginsky & Nathaniel Dorsky Musical Score by Mark Adler Captain Cook portrayed by Patrick Stewart Narrated by Napualani Cassidy

Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was provided by Pacific Islanders in Communications through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With special appreciation to the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Click here to purchase the Wayfinders DVD.