Takutea is a key breeding ground for the seabirds of the Pacific.

“The seabird colonies of Takutea are the largest and most important in the Southern Cook Islands,” reads a report published by the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Project.

And perhaps this is because the island has remained unpopulated for centuries. When Captain Cook visited this part of the world in 1777, most of the Cook Islands were inhabited, but Takutea had only empty huts. Today, the 120-hectare atoll remains uninhabited – an ideal breeding ground for red-tailed tropicbirds and masked boobies.

The island, which is located just a few miles off the north-west coast of Atiu, is home to thousands of seabirds, with notable populations of tavake (red-tailed tropicbirds), kota’a (frigatebirds), and brown boobies. A designated bird and wildlife sanctuary, Takutea is owned by the people of Atiu and administered by the island’s aronga mana – traditional leaders – and council.

For an uninhabited island, Takutea has a colourful history. Gifted to the British Empire in 1903, it was for decades a hub of copra production. But in 1938, a dispute prompted the court to open an investigation into its ownership. Over a decade later, the court declared it the property of all Atiuan people, and named its present administrators.

Over the years there have been several pushes to derive economic return from Takutea – ideas have included toa (ironwood) production, a revival of the copra industry, tourism, and even the construction of an airstrip – but all have failed. The seabird colonies continue to thrive as a result.

Today, the people of Atiu do visit Takutea on occasion to harvest paua (clams) or copra, but out of respect for the wildlife sanctuary, they generally abide by two unofficial rules. “Informally everybody knows they’re not allowed to pull feathers out of live tropicbirds and they’re not allowed to harvest birds in general”, said the director of the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Project, Gerald McCormack.

Periodically, the trustees of Takutea permit conservation and research groups to go ashore. “The tourists can go over there but they have to ask permission through us,” Rongomatane Ariki one of Atiu’s three high chiefs said. “Usually there is a certain amount of money tourists pay to go ashore, and it comes back to the bank for the people of Atiu.”

McCormack has concerns about the potential expansion of tourism on Takutea. “One problem is the brown booby nests where boats land,” McCormack said. “People don’t see the nest until it’s too late, and when the young are approached they go away from the nest and are often not found again.” People who venture further inland, he said, could also disturb the frigates that nest in the trees, which are only about five metres high.

“Takutea is sort of a controversial issue,” McCormack said, “but in theory the trustees can do what they like with it, as long as it’s in the best interests of the people of Atiu.”

Takutea, Cook Islands
Coming ashore over the reef
Harry the hermit crab
Frigate Bird
Waves breaking on Takutea's reef