Suwarrow is a national park, the Cook Islands’ first and only.
Legislated in 1978, the park enjoys a Category IV status on a scale devised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; in other words, its plentiful marine and birdlife makes it a habitat of national importance.
Located about 930 kilometres north of Rarotonga, Suwarrow inhabits the bottom edge of the northern group of Cook Islands. It’s shaped like a quadrilateral, and surrounds a vast lagoon that measures 19 by eight kilometres. Within that space are 20 islets.
Suwarrow has always been a place of serenity and solitude. It doesn’t have a traditional name because no one lived there continuously in ancient times.
Kiwi author Tom Neale lived there alone for a total of 16 years and wrote in his acclaimed autobiography, “An Island to Oneself”, that “life there moves at the sort of pace which you feel God must have had in mind originally when He made the sun to keep us warm and provided the fruits of the earth for the taking.” Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife called Suwarrow “the most romantic island in the world.”
Today, the island is inhabited by two caretakers employed by the National Environment Service; the position turns over every six months. Caretakers will attest that Suwarrow is no longer a lonely place. Yachties from all over the world lay anchor; sometimes over 20 are there at once, as they follow the seasonal trade winds across the Pacific.
In 2011, Suwarrow made international headlines when a Russian politician claimed he had purchased the island and declared it the capital of his new empire. The news came as a surprise to the Cook Islands, because the land belongs to the Crown.
Caretakers speak endearingly of Suwarrow. They call it an ornithologist’s dream, as it’s a breeding group for 10 species of seabirds. They also say it’s a wonderland for snorkellers, and recall fondly its crystal-clear, protected lagoon.
If you plan to visit Suwarrow via yacht, let the caretakers know ahead of time, and make sure to sign your name in their logbook – physical evidence of the island’s popularity amongst the international boating community.