Finding your Way
Key Facts about Navigation and Map Making
- Knowing where you are, finding somewhere you want to go, being
able to go back to the same place whenever you want to are abilities
everyone has. They are extremely valuable skills and can be improved
on with practice.
- Almost all animals, from insects to elephants have a well
developed sense of location. Homing pigeons, for example, can
be taken from their roost in a closed box, moved thousands of
kilometres away and released in an area where they have never
been before. Yet they fly into the sky and soon are headed directly
back home again. There are many stories of cats and dogs who somehow
find their way home after being lost in strange areas far from
home. Small birds migrate from Russia to New Zealand and back
without getting lost.
- We have a sense of location too, and it is even more advanced
than that of the animals. Once a person is trained to use this
skill, they can go anywhere and know their way home even in completely
unfamiliar surroundings. Show them a place once and they will
find it again many years later.
- Ancient navigators were thought to have superhuman abilities.
They did not. They simply had a well developed sense of location.
They understood the language of nature and learned how to see
cycles and relationships that others did not notice.
- The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa which means the
land of the long white cloud. Islands have their own clouds that
are quite different from sea clouds. They come from the transpiration
of plants on the islands and get bigger and bigger as the day
goes on, rising thousands of metres above the land. Even in strong
winds, the cloud remains right over the island. A navigator on
a boat can see an island's cloud from 50 miles at sea or more.
- There are many other sights, sounds, smells and natural textures
that help us develop a sense of where we are. Our eyesight is
especially important in navigation, and we orient to easily identified
- Landmarks are things like mountains, big buildings, or other
features of the land that you can see from a long way away. Whenever
you come to a new place, always look for landmarks. You won't
be lost if you can see a landmark.
- Use big landmarks for a general position and smaller landmarks
for more exact positions. A mountain will orient you to a particular
neighbourhood and an unusual building or tree or rock formation
will orient you to a smaller place.
- If you want to return to the same place again, line up two
landmarks. That way, when you return, all you need to do is move
until the two landmarks are lined up the same way again and move
towards or away the landmark until the local landmarks appear.
- To return to the same place even more exactly, line up two
landmarks in one direction and then two more in another direction.
When you move until the same set of landmarks line up the same
way you are in exactly the same position.
- Navigators use stars, the moon, the sun, and the planets as
landmarks. They measure the height of the object from the horizon
and calculate a line of position. Normally, they use a sextant
to measure the angle from the horizon to the star. A navigator
will take sights from three stars and where the line of positions
cross, that is where they are at sea.
- Ancient navigators made a map out of sticks, which represented
wave patterns and shells representing the islands. The Navigator
would lie in the bottom of the canoe and "feel" the
sea waves. Because islands change the direction of waves, the
wave pattern told the navigators where the islands were located.
- Modern maps are highly accurate representations of the land
and sea. They are made from aerial photographs, ground surveys,
and depth transects in the open ocean. Making maps is
an essential skill for scientists so they can return to the same
place again and so others can find their research stations again
in the future.
- Scientists use highly exact navigation and survey techniques
to find the same research station again and again so they can
detect changes. Today, a satellite based Geographic Positioning
System (GPS) tells a person's position within about 100 metres
on land or sea. With precision instruments, position can be obtained
within only a few metres. Then, scientists use local landmarks
and survey equipment to return to the exact same location.
- Returning to the same place and taking the same measurements
again is critical to measuring and understanding long term changes.