All afternoon, the sky has been gray and the sea foamy with whitecaps. But at least two tourists – husband-wife couple Steve and Maureen – don’t consider today a waste of precious holiday time.
In Rarotonga they have fallen in love with snorkelling, and they have just learnt that squally weather might not be such an unfavorable thing. “We went out for about an hour and it just stunned me,” Steve says. “We got amongst it and I’ve never seen so many fish. I’m surprised, actually, that there aren’t more people out there [snorkeling].”
Sabine Janneck, who owns The Dive Centre smiles and nods as Steve talks. She explains that in rough seas, fish filter into the lagoon, which is always calmer than the seas beyond the reef. “That’s why we always tell everyone if it’s rainy or a bit choppy it’s still great for snorkelling,” Sabine says.
“Plus, fish love the bubbles so they love the rain. Rain is not a reason not to go in the water. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing. We have to consider the currents and conditions, of course, but this,” she says, pointing at the Aroa lagoon, “is a marine reserve and the reef comes very close to shore so it’s very safe and very shallow.”
Steve and Maureen confirm that the lagoon, which here varies from 1.5 to 3 metres depending on the tide, has been far from intimidating. Neither counts swimming amongst their strengths, but both feel safe despite the stormy weather and despite their usual discomfort around water.
Today, in fact, is the third day in a row Steve and Maureen have devoted to snorkelling in the Rarotonga lagoon. They have snorkelled under the sunshine and they’ve snorkelled in today’s rain, but in both cases they experienced a lagoon warm, clear, and full of fish.
“It’s just stunning, the sheer quantity and range of fish,” Maureen says. “We saw one or two our first day and thought, ‘That’s pretty amazing,’ but it just got better and better.”
As per Sabine’s advice, Steve has been swimming with two stones, tapping them together to pique the curiosity of underwater creatures. His initial doubts about whether the exercise would be effective have long dissipated. “The first day, Steve’s lying there, whacking these stones together, going, ‘It’s not working,’ and all of a sudden I see a big swarm of fish approaching,” Maureen says.
Her hair is still damp and she and Steve haven’t eaten lunch, but they are happy to sit with me and talk, their enthusiasm evident. “Can’t get the smiles off their faces,” Sabine says, nodding in the direction of the Kiwi couple.
“It was yellow-green,” Steve is saying. He laughs. “See – we use technical terms. But the range – we saw butterfly fish, rainbow-colored fish, brown-colored fish, big schools – we just sat there and watched them.”
“Today we saw heaps of little ones,” Maureen adds. “I think we didn’t notice them before because we were so excited by the big ones, but there are such lovely, little ones as well.”
According to Cook Islands Tourism statistics, 99 percent of visitors to the Cook Islands engage in some kind of water activity. Snorkelling has been rated the most satisfying with visitors giving it a 4.6 out of a possible 5. The waters of Rarotonga and Aitutaki are a snorkeller’s Mecca – safe, shallow, and rich in marine life.
Rarotonga is fairly unique in that it has a close-fringing reef. Fiji doesn’t have that. Tahiti’s lagoon is big and deep and there are a lot of sharks and if you’re worried about that sort of thing, as a mental perception, it’s there. The Rarotonga lagoon is particularly shallow and safe.
Aitutaki has one passage that’s man-made and it’s quite a contained and safe environment, as well. Larger islands in other places tend to have barrier reefs that aren’t contiguous. Ours are. That reef is a significant barrier to hazards.
Rarotonga has several snorkelling hotspots – Fruits of Rarotonga, a spot in Tikioki named for the café across the road, and the Aroa Lagoon in front of The Rarotongan Resort & Spa are the most popular, but there are a handful of other great spots too. Most dive shops publicize conditions and currents daily, or are happy to make that information available for people who prefer to snorkel without the assistance of a guide.
And then there’s Aitutaki. Most say snorkelling in Aitutaki is “next-level”. There are paua (giant clams), bonefish, and Napoleon wrasse, on top of the rays and fish and turtles that are also plentiful in the Rarotonga lagoon.
“There’s different species of fish in our lagoon [than] Rarotonga’s,” says a local Aitutakian guide. Then, proudly: “There are a lot of species that aren’t even on the fish chart.”
Whereas snorkelling spots off Rarotonga are accessible for swimmers and beachgoers, Aitutaki spots are further offshore because the lagoon is much broader. Aitutaki requires some guiding as you can’t just go off the beach, but it’s a step up in the level of marine life and the beauty of what you see.
Local dive operators and guides love the waters of the Cook Islands, and they are resolute about reminding guests, politely but firmly, to respect it. All ask snorkellers not to stand on live coral or feed the fish.
“We want people to have a great time,” Sabine says, “but ask that all who venture into the lagoon treat that stunning environment with care – that’s very, very important.”