Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Secrets of the Wave Pilots

At 0400, three miles above the Pacific seafloor, the searchlight of a power boat swept through a warm June night last year, looking for a second boat, a sailing canoe. The captain of the canoe, Alson Kelen, potentially the world’s last-ever apprentice in the ancient art of wave-piloting, was trying to reach Aur, an atoll in the Marshall Islands, without the aid of a GPS device or any other way-finding instrument. If successful, he would prove that one of the most sophisticated navigational techniques ever developed still existed and, he hoped, inspire efforts to save it from extinction. Monitoring his progress from the power boat were an unlikely trio of Western scientists — an anthropologist, a physicist and an oceanographer — who were hoping his journey might help them explain how wave pilots, in defiance of the dizzying complexities of fluid dynamics, detect direction and proximity to land. More broadly, they wondered if watching him sail, in the context of growing concerns about the neurological effects of navigation-by-smartphone, would yield hints about how our orienteering skills influence our sense of place, our sense of home, even our sense of self.

When the boats set out in the afternoon from Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, Kelen’s plan was to sail through the night and approach Aur at daybreak, to avoid crashing into its reef in the dark. But around sundown, the wind picked up and the waves grew higher and rounder, sorely testing both the scientists’ powers of observation and the structural integrity of the canoe. Through the salt-streaked windshield of the power boat, the anthropologist, Joseph Genz, took mental field notes — the spotlighted whitecaps, the position of Polaris, his grip on the cabin handrail — while he waited for Kelen to radio in his location or, rather, what he thought his location was.

The Marshalls provide a crucible for navigation: 70 square miles of land, total, comprising five islands and 29 atolls, rings of coral islets that grew up around the rims of underwater volcanoes millions of years ago and now encircle gentle lagoons. These green dots and doughnuts make up two parallel north-south chains, separated from their nearest neighbors by a hundred miles on average. Swells generated by distant storms near Alaska, Antarctica, California and Indonesia travel thousands of miles to these low-lying spits of sand. When they hit, part of their energy is reflected back out to sea in arcs, like sound waves emanating from a speaker; another part curls around the atoll or island and creates a confused chop in its lee. Wave-piloting is the art of reading — by feel and by sight — these and other patterns. Detecting the minute differences in what, to an untutored eye, looks no more meaningful than a washing-machine cycle allows a ri-meto, a person of the sea in Marshallese, to determine where the nearest solid ground is — and how far off it lies — long before it is visible.

In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan, searching for a new route to the nutmeg and cloves of the Spice Islands, sailed through the Pacific Ocean and named it ‘‘the peaceful sea’’ before he was stabbed to death in the Philippines. Only 18 of his 270 men survived the trip. When subsequent explorers, despite similar travails, managed to make landfall on the countless islands sprinkled across this expanse, they were surprised to find inhabitants with nary a galleon, compass or chart. God had created them there, the explorers hypothesized, or perhaps the islands were the remains of a sunken continent. As late as the 1960s, Western scholars still insisted that indigenous methods of navigating by stars, sun, wind and waves were not nearly accurate enough, nor indigenous boats seaworthy enough, to have reached these tiny habitats on purpose.

Archaeological and DNA evidence (and replica voyages) have since proved that the Pacific islands were settled intentionally — by descendants of the first humans to venture out of sight of land, beginning some 60,000 years ago, from Southeast Asia to the Solomon Islands. They reached the Marshall Islands about 2,000 years ago. The geography of the archipelago that made wave-piloting possible also made it indispensable as the sole means of collecting food, trading goods, waging war and locating unrelated sexual partners. Chiefs threatened to kill anyone who revealed navigational knowledge without permission. In order to become a ri-meto, you had to be trained by a ri-meto and then pass a voyaging test, devised by your chief, on the first try. As colonizers from Europe introduced easier ways to get around, the training of ri-metos declined and became restricted primarily to an outlying atoll called Rongelap, where a shallow circular reef, set between ocean and lagoon, became the site of a small wave-piloting school.

In 1954, an American hydrogen-bomb test less than a hundred miles away rendered Rongelap uninhabitable. Over the next decades, no new ri-metos were recognized; when the last well-known one died in 2003, he left a 55-year-old cargo-ship captain named Korent Joel, who had trained at Rongelap as a boy, the effective custodian of their people’s navigational secrets. Because of the radioactive fallout, Joel had not taken his voyaging test and thus was not a true ri-meto. But fearing that the knowledge might die with him, he asked for and received historic dispensation from his chief to train his younger cousin, Alson Kelen, as a wave pilot.

Now, in the lurching cabin of the power boat, Genz worried about whether Kelen knew what he was doing. Because Kelen was not a ri-meto, social mores forced him to insist that he was not navigating but kajjidede, or guessing. The sea was so rough tonight, Genz thought, that even for Joel, picking out a route would be like trying to hear a whisper in a gale. A voyage with this level of navigational difficulty had never been undertaken by anyone who was not a ri-meto or taking his test to become one. Genz steeled himself for the possibility that he might have to intervene for safety’s sake, even if this was the best chance that he and his colleagues might ever get to unravel the scientific mysteries of wave-piloting — and Kelen’s best chance to rally support for preserving it. Organizing this trip had cost $72,000 in research grants, a fortune in the Marshalls.

The radio crackled. ‘‘Jebro, Jebro, this is Jitdam,’’ Kelen said. ‘‘Do you copy? Over.’’

Genz swallowed. The cabin’s confines, together with the boat’s diesel odors, did nothing to allay his motion sickness. ‘‘Copy that,’’ he said. ‘‘Do you know where you are?’’

Though mankind has managed to navigate itself across the globe and into outer space, it has done so in defiance of our innate way-finding capacities (not to mention survival instincts), which are still those of forest-dwelling homebodies. Other species use far more sophisticated cognitive methods to orient themselves. Dung beetles follow the Milky Way; the Cataglyphis desert ant dead-reckons by counting its paces; monarch butterflies, on their thousand-mile, multigenerational flight from Mexico to the Rocky Mountains, calculate due north using the position of the sun, which requires accounting for the time of day, the day of the year and latitude; honeybees, newts, spiny lobsters, sea turtles and many others read magnetic fields. Last year, the fact of a ‘‘magnetic sense’’ was confirmed when Russian scientists put reed warblers in a cage that simulated different magnetic locations and found that the warblers always tried to fly ‘‘home’’ relative to whatever the programmed coordinates were. Precisely how the warblers detected these coordinates remains unclear. As does, for another example, the uncanny capacity of godwits to hatch from their eggs in Alaska and, alone, without ever stopping, take off for French Polynesia. Clearly they and other long-distance migrants inherit a mental map and the ability to constantly recalibrate it. What it looks like in their mind’s eye, however, and how it is maintained day and night, across thousands of miles, is still a mystery. (...)

Genz met Alson Kelen and Korent Joel in Majuro in 2005, when Genz was 28. A soft-spoken, freckled Wisconsinite and former Peace Corps volunteer who grew up sailing with his father, Genz was then studying for a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Hawaii. His adviser there, Ben Finney, was an anthropologist who helped lead the voyage of Hokulea, a replica Polynesian sailing canoe, from Hawaii to Tahiti and back in 1976; the success of the trip, which involved no modern instrumentation and was meant to prove the efficacy of indigenous ships and navigational methods, stirred a resurgence of native Hawaiian language, music, hula and crafts. Joel and Kelen dreamed of a similar revival for Marshallese sailing — the only way, they figured, for wave-piloting to endure — and contacted Finney for guidance. But Finney was nearing retirement, so he suggested that Genz go in his stead. With their chief’s blessing, Joel and Kelen offered Genz rare access, with one provision: He would not learn wave-piloting himself; he would simply document Kelen’s training.

Joel immediately asked Genz to bring scientists to the Marshalls who could help Joel understand the mechanics of the waves he knew only by feel — especially one called di lep, or backbone, the foundation of wave-piloting, which (in ri-meto lore) ran between atolls like a road. Joel’s grandfather had taught him to feel the di lep at the Rongelap reef: He would lie on his back in a canoe, blindfolded, while the old man dragged him around the coral, letting him experience how it changed the movement of the waves.

But when Joel took Genz out in the Pacific on borrowed yachts and told him they were encountering the di lep, he couldn’t feel it. Kelen said he couldn’t, either. When oceanographers from the University of Hawaii came to look for it, their equipment failed to detect it. The idea of a wave-road between islands, they told Genz, made no sense.

Privately, Genz began to fear that the di lep was imaginary, that wave-piloting was already extinct. On one research trip in 2006, when Korent Joel went below deck to take a nap, Genz changed the yacht’s course. When Joel awoke, Genz kept Joel away from the GPS device, and to the relief of them both, Joel directed the boat toward land. Later, he also passed his ri-meto test, judged by his chief, with Genz and Kelen crewing.

Worlds away, Huth, a worrier by nature, had become convinced that preserving mankind’s ability to way-find without technology was not just an abstract mental exercise but also a matter of life and death. In 2003, while kayaking alone in Nantucket Sound, fog descended, and Huth — spring-loaded and boyish, with a near-photographic memory — found his way home using local landmarks, the wind and the direction of the swells. Later, he learned that two young undergraduates, out paddling in the same fog, had become disoriented and drowned. This prompted him to begin teaching a class on primitive navigation techniques. When Huth met Genz at an academic conference in 2012 and described the methodology of his search for the Higgs boson and dark energy — subtracting dominant wave signals from a field, until a much subtler signal appears underneath — Genz told him about thep di lep, and it captured Huth’s imagination. If it was real, and if it really ran back and forth between islands, its behavior was unknown to physics and would require a supercomputer to model. That a person might be able to sense it bodily amid the cacophony generated by other ocean phenomena was astonishing.

Huth began creating possible di lep simulations in his free time and recruited van Vledder’s help. Initially, the most puzzling detail of Genz’s translation of Joel’s description was his claim that the di lep connected each atoll and island to all 33 others. That would yield a trillion trillion paths, far too many for even the most adept wave pilot to memorize. Most of what we know about ocean waves and currents — including what will happen to coastlines as climate change leads to higher sea levels (of special concern to the low-lying Netherlands and Marshall Islands) — comes from models that use global wind and bathymetry data to simulate what wave patterns probably look like at a given place and time. Our understanding of wave mechanics, on which those models are based, is wildly incomplete. To improve them, experts must constantly check their assumptions with measurements and observations. Perhaps, Huth and van Vledder thought, there were di leps in every ocean, invisible roads that no one was seeing because they didn’t know to look.

by Kim Tingley, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Mark Peterson/Redux