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    Traditional Polynesian 'location indicators'
    From: Peter Fogg
    Date: 2004 Feb 22, 20:40 +1100

    If many of the methods used by Polynesian navigators make immediate sense to
    us there may be others that remain baffling. Their oral sailing directions
    handed down (sometimes as a song - more easily memorized) often included
    'signposts' to be expected in a specific location, typically a sea creature
    or bird that appears when needed.
    These 'location indicators' seem to be unrelated to, for example, the
    appearance of land birds giving the clue that land could be close. These
    'location indicators' could be wide-ranging inhabitants of the open ocean,
    like dolphin and albatross. It has to be admitted that in some locations the
    appearance of some species could be a valid and useful locational tool, and
    one example of this would be the appearance of whale sharks (huge sharks
    that behave more like whales) regularly off the coast of Western Australia,
    one of the few places they can be found (although little enough is known
    about them). No, the 'location indicators' being addressed here are the ones
    that defy any logical explanation.
    While scholars of traditional Polynesian navigation have noted these
    'location indicators' as part of the time-tested methods, they have shied
    away from commenting on them. They don't make much sense to us, and sound
    more like magic than technique. However, the methods as a whole work just
    fine. Can it be that they do serve a useful purpose?
    Much of the traditional navigational methods can be summed up as: eternal
    vigilance. Studying the sea and the sky and noting and interpreting very
    subtle changes, variations in patterns, tiny indicators that most would not
    see or recognise if they did see. To remain focused on something that
    doesn't seem to change takes great patience as well as powers of
    concentration, and it is typically the sort of thing young people are not so
    good at, becoming bored more easily.
    To return to our world, many of us would know that taking children on long
    car journeys tests everyone's patience. Strategies for coping include games
    that are often based on observation, as in: "I spy with my little eye,
    something beginning with 'C'?"  "Cloud!"  "OK, now its your turn".
    So here is one possible explanation. Imagine that the sailing directions
    indicate the presence of an albatross, and not these big white ones that
    have been following the boat for so long, the one to be expected is smaller
    and more grey. So the navigator, and the crew, is focused on the chooks*
    wheeling about the sky but are thus more likely, hopefully, to also notice
    potentially useful information in the sky generally. In the clouds, for
    example. While they don't see the expected creature they are encouraged to
    keep looking, so it is the lack of success that is useful. And if they do
    see it then that is encouraging and perpetuates this 'myth', so its a
    win-win situation.
    The suggestion is not that this is a cheap trick, a deliberate ploy. On the
    contrary, as part of traditional lore it is more likely to have evolved over
    time, and possibly was never deliberately invented. The basis of evolution
    is that things that work are more likely to be retained than things that
    don't work, regardless of where they come from, so this suggests that these
    'location indicators' do work, in some way, and that because they serve a
    useful purpose they have been retained, even if nobody quite knows why.
    Also, it is to be doubted that this is the whole answer, perhaps more like
    just a small edge of a greater mystery.
    ( *a chook, for those unfamiliar with Australian slang, is a generic name
    for domestic fowl but more broadly indicates any bird A former politition
    referred to his press conferences as 'feeding the chooks')

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