Manu-o-Kū, or white terns, are known by traditional Hawaiian navigators as one of the best indicators of land. Manu-o-Kū go out to sea in the morning to feed on fish, and return to land at night to rest. The flights of such birds are useful signs for those seeking landfall since they provide a fairly specific direction to the seafarer. Observing the daily flight patterns of these birds can indicate the direction of islands far out of the range of sight.
When foraging for food for their young, it is estimated that manu-o-Kū may forage as far as 120 miles from land. In Hawaiian culture, some seabirds are often referred to as extensions of land because of their connection to islands.
The meaning of manu-o-Kū is often interpreted as “bird of Kū." Kū is one of the four major Hawaiian gods and is associated with diverse aspects of the Hawaiian universe such as governance, certain types of fishing and crop production, carving of canoes, long life, and family. Some of the meanings of the word kū that are also associated to the god Kū are upright, to rise up, or to establish. As reliable patrons of navigation and wayfinding, manu-o-Kū embody the energy of Kū and his concern for the governance and prosperity of a rising nation like an island from out of the sea.
Photo: James Watt/NOAA