In Suwarrow

Flying the flag and National Park sign

Measuring  9 x 11 nm, Suwarrow is a fairly large atoll but has only about 100 acres of land scattered around the north of the reef.  Anchorage Island is the largest and inhabited from May to November each year by two rangers employed by The Cook Islands to look after the only National Park in the group.  The other land is given over to abundant birdlife; the lagoon is rich in marine life.

The atoll was visited by the Russian explorer Lazarev in 1814 aboard the ‘Suwarov’, hence the name which was changed to ‘Suwarrow’ after Cook Island independence.  Even today almost 200 years later, the only way to visit the island is by sea.  About 120 yachts pass through each year on their way west.

When we arrived as yacht no. 97 on the books, there were only two other boats in the anchorage.  We were closely followed by Shango with Roger and Amy on board with whom we’d loosely sailed in company from Bora Bora.  Over the next few days another seven yachts joined us as the weather improved.

Pipistrelle at anchor (Whale Island in background)

After a well-earned rest and catch up after our passage we spent the following morning checking in with the two wardens, James and John at their shelter, presenting papers, paying them a fee of US$ 50.00 for the privilege of staying at this paradise and getting a special Suwarrow stamp in our passports.  James and John are both extremely friendly Cook islanders from Rarotonga who return there for the cyclone season from December to April and reapply every two years for the privilege of being on Suwarrow.  For James it’s his second year and for John his first on the atoll.

The Shelter

James in the Shelter

Sundowners with Amy and Roger on board Pipistrelle celebrated not only our safe arrival but also witnessing the infamous ‘Green Flash’.  Watching a wonderful sunset over the anchorage, all four of us saw it – Elaine for the first time!  It is definitely not a figment of the imagination.

The next few days were filled with a variety of interesting snorkelling trips, a birdwatching expedition, a fishing trip (for Bob) and much socialising!

For the first time, we decided to wear our wet suits for snorkelling so we could stay in the water for up to 45 minutes without feeling cold.  Dave and Sherry from Soggy Paws led a couple of snorkel sorties.  The local snorkel spot was marked by a white buoy not far from the anchorage where the two manta rays we had seen from the dinghy disappeared before we could follow them.  But we swam with black tipped and white tipped sharks and enjoyed finding yet more varieties of tropical fish we had not previously seen.  A second very pleasant drift snorkel took us back along the reef to the anchorage.  We followed that up next day with a bumpy dinghy ride to a coral head off Three Mile Island, anchoring on a coral outcrop in about 2 metres of crystal clear water which dropped off to over 30 metres.  Here is the most marvellous live coral we have seen in the Pacific.  The colours range from lime green, to light blue and mauve with the coral growing like mushrooms over the reef.

In the aquarium again....Achilles tang (Acanthurus achilles)

white tipped ....

....and black tipped reef shark

Black and white minstrel! Juvenile black snapper (Macolor niger)

Cushion starfish (Coriaster granulatus)

Wonderful coral

After a couple of days, 11 yachts were at anchor and we had a very sociable sundowner session on shore one evening with everyone contributing an hors d’oeuvre and providing their own drinks.  That was topped the next night by a pot luck supper at the wardens’ shelter with a huge and delicious range of dishes being brought along by cruisers and James and John.  But before we could eat, we were treated to ‘shark feeding’ on the windward side of the island.  What a frenzy of sharks, fins and tails splashing around to catch the best  scraps of fish James threw for them!

Weather-beaten windward side

Heed the sign...

Shark 'bunfight'!

In the traditional Cook Island way, our meal was preceded by James saying grace and then inviting children, ladies and then gentlemen in that order to take their food.

On our particular agenda was a boat trip with John to Whale Island to see the birdlife.  We were not disappointed!  Walking in the shallows but not setting foot on the island itself, and equipped with binoculars and camera, we saw at a distance thousands of fledglings and different sorts of seabirds including red footed boobies in sparsely growing trees.  An amazing sight!

Red footed boobie

Seabirds waiting to nest

White terns in flight ....

... and roosting!

Amazing too was the result of Bob’s fishing trip late one afternoon, again with John in his robust aluminium boat.  Taking our own line and lures, Bob caught a sizeable red snapper which nearly sent him overboard trying to reel it in.  But fish in these parts are not reeled in – the line is pulled in as fast as possible to prevent the catch being eaten by sharks before it is landed!  John and James’ need of fish is greater than ours on this remote island, so Bob donated the catch but John kindly gave us two fillets in any case – delicious!

John, Bob and the catch!

By this time, we had been out to the manta ray buoy another three times but the mantas were quite obviously avoiding us.  So, after Soggy Paws and Shango had left, we decided to stay on in Suwarrow for another day to scour the site just one more time after an early breakfast.  We were rewarded first by the sight of a large but shy turtle

Elegant and shy - green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas)

And then ….. A MANTA RAY!

Gliding along

On the turn

Fulfilling one of Bob’s lifetime ambitions, we swam with this majestic creature for about 20 minutes watching it gently glide through the water being cleaned by various small fish, then banking with its 8ft wing span and turning in the other direction.  It was a great finale to a wonderful week on Suwarrow.

We cleared out with James and left in good conditions and spirits next day, destination Samoa.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the tranquillity of the island, the friendliness and hospitality of the wardens and the general ambience they created from their humble surroundings.  As they are totally reliant on the stores they bring with them at the beginning of the season, their fish harvest and what they can grow in their little garden, we like other cruisers, gave them a few provisions and petrol for their outboard as our contribution to their continued stay in Suwarrow.

Only just under 2000 nm to Auckland!!

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