What do you do when you’ve just finished a stressful semester at uni, and your tenancy application for a new house has been accepted? You ditch New Zealand and head to Rarotonga for 2 weeks! With the quarantine-free travel bubble opening between NZ and the Cook Islands and flights and accommodation being ridiculously affordable, trading in Auckland’s sub-zero temperatures for a tropical paradise seemed to be the only reasonable choice.
The climate was the first thing that got me about Raro. Snapchat was covered with 7am stories of frost-covered grass, and I’m getting a sweat on just walking to breakfast. I think the next thing I quickly noticed was the atmosphere. It’s a small island (67 km2; a population of 13,000), and the convivial ambience of the community was almost tangible. The way the bus driver greeted me, you’d think he was my uncle. After being in Raro for only a day, I felt the same feeling of being in Pukekohe; I felt like I was home.
Obviously, the daily routine began with breakfast. Then, as soon as we could get our shit together, we went snorkelling. The water was so warm and so salty. One of the locals said that as kids, they all swam in the ocean with their eyes open to get used to the salt. I totally understand why they did that because water leaked into my mask one time and I thought I went blind. In NZ, in the height of summer, I can rarely go freediving in just a bikini for more than 30 minutes before the cold sets in; in Raro, I almost felt too hot when I was snorkelling in my 3 ml spring suit – crazy. The ocean would probably feel like a bath in summertime.
To me, the most interesting animal I saw while snorkelling in the lagoon was the octopuses. I feel like every time I go freediving and there’s an octopus, everyone but me manages to see it; not this time, suckers (pun intended). They inhabited the right-hand side of the lagoon, amongst an area of littered stones and rubble. They were day octopuses (Octopus cyanea) who, unlike their nocturnal counterparts, are active during the day, stealthily patrolling the reef under an impressive camouflage [1, 2]. One of them even attempted to steal my GoPro and take it into its den for further inspection.
Bluefin trevally (Caranx melampygus) are the top predators in the Rarotongan lagoon systems. I came across a school of them. When I first saw one of them in the distance, I honestly thought it was a juvenile reef shark trapped in the lagoon. Once I got closer and noticed more of them, I realised they were, unmistakeably, trevally. They outsized all the other reef fish by three-fold, and they proved their predator status as they confidently cruised past me at arms-length. The biggest members of this school appeared to be around 70cm, putting them at the age of approximately 8 years .
Moray eels would appear out of nowhere in crevices and holes in the reef. Sometimes, I’d sink to the sand on my knees to be face to face with them for a moment and appreciate their beautiful ugliness and imagine what it’s like to be a little fish caught in their pharyngeal jaws.
The coral was beautiful, and, like the octopus, I have never seen coral like that in the wild before. The variation in size and colour was magnificent. So was the fact that they live in a highly changing, intertidal environment; I couldn’t touch the sandy bottom at high tide compared to the exposed reef at dead low. There was an abundance of brain coral and table coral, as well as soft coral species.
Darting around were parrotfish, doing their crucial job of scraping and cleaning the coral to keep it healthy.
The coral themselves provide homes for thousands of reef fish and act as a barrier for incoming waves that intend to reach the island. It is said that even though coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, they provide support for around 25% of all known marine species.
This environment was like nothing I had ever seen before. I wanted to spend every moment under that water; if a genie granted me only one wish, it would be to breathe underwater. Then again, my wish partly comes true every time I strap on some SCUBA gear and descend down 5 metres, 10 metres, 20 metres… which is exactly what I did.
Our first dive was the Papua Passage. Literally, a passage between two tall cliffs that felt like I was doing some sort of underwater, horizontal rock climbing to pass through. But, oh boy, was it worth it. Turtles everywhere you looked, sleeping on coral, drifting lazily past with their heavy eyes watching you meticulously. Two species exist in the Cook Islands, the endangered green turtle (Chelonia mydas)  and the critically endangered hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) , and I had the pleasure of meeting both.
Look closely at that photo. You can see the rear right quarter appears to be missing. If I had to take a guess, and I’ve stared at this photo forever trying to decipher it, then I would say that a shark, most likely a tiger, managed to get itself a quick on-the-go snack. This turtle is living proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The next dive was the Avaavaroa drop off. My god, did this blow my mind. An extensive coral reef that just drops off into the abyss.
Schools of fish, an eagle ray, and a couple of grey reef sharks cruised beneath us in front of a dark blue background that looked like it could engulf me at any moment. In a way, it was humbling to be on the edge of the vast, blue ocean like that.
The rest of our dives were on the northern and north-western sides of the island. Here, every time I slipped under the water, it felt like I was submerged in a woodland fairytopia.
The landscape was stunning. Here and there were crown of thorns starfish, a giant, impressive echinoderm with thorn-like ossicles containing venom. There appeared to be a healthy population here. Still, at another island within the Cook Islands called Aitutaki, their population is rampant. They are decimating the very coral they feed on.
Interestingly, on these northern dives was the amount of trash that seemed to be pulled along the floor by currents and would accumulate in hotspots around the reef and in caves. I grabbed all I could, but part of me wished to do a few dives whose sole purpose was to find as much trash as possible.
All in all, my trip to Rarotonga was fascinating. All I wanted to do once I got there was spend as much time as possible underwater, and that’s what I did. Rarotonga is a magical place, and it is so worthy of preservation. I hope to return back one day soon, maybe even to do my own research. But, for now, I’ll just keep harassing everyone’s insta feeds with Raro throwbacks.
1. Heukelem, W. V. (1973). Growth and life‐span of Octopus cyanea (Mollusca: Cephalopoda). Journal of Zoology, 169(3), 299–315.
2. Mather, J. A., & Mather, D. L. (2004). Apparent movement in a visual display: the ‘passing cloud’of Octopus cyanea (Mollusca: Cephalopoda). Journal of Zoology, 263(1), 89–94.
3. Sudekum, A. E., Parrish, J. D., Radtke, R. L., & Ralston, S. (1991). Life history and ecology of large jacks in undisturbed, shallow, oceanic communities. Fishery Bulletin, 89(3), 493–513.
4. Seminoff, J. A. (2004). Chelonia mydas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2004: e.T4615A11037468. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2004.RLTS.T4615A11037468.en
5. Mortimer, J. A. & Donnelly, M. (2008). Eretmochelys imbricata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T8005A12881238. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T8005A12881238.en