Like Polynesians of old, traversing the vast Pacific, leaders and dignitaries met on a Hawaii beach September 1 to welcome a fleet of voyaging canoes.

“The ocean doesn’t divide us; it connects us,” said Tommy Remengesau Jr., president of the Republic of Palau, at the dawn ceremony. “And today, those words have a meaning,”

The Hawaiian welcome kicked off the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, hosted for the first time by the United States. World leaders are promoting conservation in the Hawaiian islands, home to a rich array of plants and animals.

“There’s an old Hawaiian proverb that loosely translates to ‘unite to move forward,'” President Obama said August 31 in Honolulu, speaking before the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders. He called on participants to protect the Pacific, preserve the environment and act on climate. We have to row as one. If we do, we might just save the one planet that we’ve got.”

In late August, President Obama pledged to protect land in Maine and the waters off Hawaii in new and expanded national monuments.

Obama visited Midway Island, which is part of the newly expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. He heads then to China September 2, where he will join leaders of the world’s largest economies for the G20 summit.

The Pacific isn’t the only place where Hawaiian voyaging canoes are making waves. In addition to the vessels that opened the IUCN conference, the Polynesian Voyaging Society canoe Hōkūle’a is currently traveling the world using traditional navigation. Its 110,000-kilometer journey has taken it from Hawaii to Australia, South Africa, Brazil and New York City. Together, the far-ranging canoes promote “Mālama Honua,” or “care for the Earth.”

Ocean leaders will look to build on the momentum from the IUCN conference September 15 to 16 during the Our Ocean conference in Washington.