Aitutake: That’s Where It’s At!

When travelling by sailboat, pulling into a calm, sleepy anchorage with easy shore access makes all the difference. Two days ago, after a mostly speedy, kinda wet and bouncy, passage from Bora Bora, we tucked ourselves into a cozy nook in front of Arutunga, on Aitutake Atoll in the Cook Islands. That puts us squarely in the middle of the South Pacific, which is to say, pretty far from anywhere. We hemmed and hawed for a couple of hours before we finally decided to come in here-the only passage through the barrier reef is a narrow channel that’s only six feet deep at high tide, and Toyatte draws nearly 5.5 feet. We had planned to anchor outside the pass, where the charts show a dicey anchorage in the lee of the island, but when we arrived, we realized that would require dropping the hook right on top of a coral reef, something we didn’t want to do. Faced with a bad anchorage or at least two days of bobbing around with no wind in the forecast and bouncy seas, Captain Rob decided bravery was to be our credo of the day. Accordingly, I stood at the end of the bowsprit, nervously scanning the passage for protruding coral heads, and Rob kept a steady hand at the tiller. In the shallowest section, a spotted eagle ray glided through ahead of us, and we breathed an exuberant sigh of relief when we reached the tiny, pond-like anchorage at the far end. We are anchored in only 10 feet of water, and there is hardly room for another boat (but we see a catamaran coming in, so we’re going to tie our stern to a palm tree to make a bit of space!). All the locals have already been down to the docks on their scooters to check out the new boats in town, and we spent this morning at the local church service to listen to the remarkable singing. Rob was inspired to work on his own song, and has gotten as far as the title to this blog post.

We’re finding it’s nice to be back in English-speaking territory (though Cook Island Maori is the primary language) after 10 months of trying to communicate in Spanish, French, and Rob’s pidgin and sound effects. We stopped to look at a canoe in someone’s yard today (Rob’s kind of obsessed with the outrigger canoes) and she welcomed us and told us the legend of One Foot Island, at the far end of the lagoon, and chatted with us about fishing back in the days when “coconuts were our juice boxes.” We felt like we missed out on some opportunities like this in French Polynesia because we couldn’t speak enough French, but we hope to catch up now.

We said our final farewells to French Polynesia in Bora Bora, where we spent several days livin’ the glam life-stunning volcanic landscape, posh $500/night motu resorts, sparkling turquoise lagoon, black pearls by the dozen, lagoon tours by submarine, ultra deluxe $1,000/night “bungalows”… All the glitz, none of the walks on the beach (they’re all owned by the aforementioned schwanky resorts). Unfortunately, all of the fancy resrts have taken a bit of the shimmer out of the lagoon that drew them here in the first place. Known as a fantastic snorkeling and diving location because of its clear waters and once plentiful population of giant manta rays, Bora Bora’s lagoon is not as healthy as it once was. We read reports of a study showing a precipitous decline in the manta ray population over the past decade. While mantas once came to the lagoon in large numbers for the “cleaning station,” where mantas attract small cleaner fish to clean their wings, and to breed, the study showed little breeding activity and many days with no rays since about 2005. They attribute the decline to resort development in important areas for manta rays and note that more development is scheduled for the future. This, perhaps, provides a lesson in spending your tourist dollars carefully, as it’s the tourist demand that drives the strain on the environment.

Like Bora Bora, the other islands in the Society Islands group are steep, volcanic islands surrounded by barrier reefs. They are all much more developed than the tranquil islands in the Marquesas and the Tuamotos, though it’s not hard to see why these magical islands with their blue lagoons have drawn a crowd. Instead of living off fruit from the trees and fish from the sea, the Society Islanders are working 9-5 jobs (okay, maybe more like 7-11 and 1:30-3). While the Marquesans and Tuamotans would gladly invite passing cruisers into their yards to chat and sip cool coconuts in the shade of a mango tree, or trade for fruit, the Society Islanders have built up big money tourism businesses and live life at a faster pace. We were constantly shocked by the number of boats in every anchorage, but we nonetheless had some beautiful walks and great snorkels.

The highlight of our time in the Societies was catching the Heiva Festival, an annual cultural celebration with everything from fruit carrying, to tossing javelins at coconuts, to outrigger canoe races, to fire walking. Though we didn’t catch all of the events (most notably, we missed the canoe races and fire walking), we spent several nights enjoying the shows in Huahine and Raitea. We listened as local choirs brought the soft rhythms of the islands to life in their ringing harmonies, with traditional drums and ukuleles playing in the background. When the singers left the stage, dancers in grass skirts and pareus, wearing headdresses made of flowers and leaves, sashayed onto the stage. In one case, they even danced with torches. The men do a short of speedy thigh clacking and the women shake their hips feverishly, grass skirts accentuating the belly-dancing-like motions. At the same time, through hand gestures, they act out stories and myths we could never quite understand since the only word we know in any Polynesian language is “Kaoha” (we thought this just meant “hello,” but it seems it may mean anything from “I’ve got the war gods in my pocket today, bro,” to “Peace and love,” depending on the context). The motions, though always similar, were sometimes fierce and sometimes comical, depending on how they were performed. Marveling at the dancers’ skills, I’m certain I would be kicked out of a Polynesian dance class on day 1 on the grounds that, if you can’t understand the basic mechanics of a simple hip shake, you’ll never be able to snap figure 8’s at warp speed. Rob shows more promise.

Less exciting was our stop in Papeete, Tahiti, where, though the landscape is every bit as phenomenal as the islands in the Marquesas, a map in the tourist information center shows that the water quality is not high enough to allow for swimming anywhere in Papeete (though it is better elsewhere on the island). We don’t know the details as to all the sources of pollution, but it became clear as we rowed our dinghy through an anchorage packed with hundreds of boats (local boats and cruisers) that boats, and particularly sewage from boats, is part of the problem. Most small boats have holding tanks on board to avoid pumping the head (that’s the toilet) directly overboard, something that is especially important in areas with restricted water circulation, like the lagoon around Tahiti. Space on boats is limited, however, and tanks fill up quickly. In the U.S. and Canada, we saw lots of shoreside pump out stations where you can solve that full tank problem, but we haven’t seen any of these facilities since San Diego. The other option is to pump overboard, of course, but you don’t see many boats leaving the anchorage to go pump out a couple miles offshore. We have a holding tank on Toyatte, but had always planned to rely primarily on shoreside public restrooms. Unfortunately, it turns out public restrooms are one of the greatest innovations of North America, one that has not been widely adopted elsewhere. We hate the thought that all we’re leaving behind us is a dirty wake, so we may investigate bigger tanks.

Papeete is not alone in its water quality problems; we saw issues with sewage all the way down the coast. In Alaska, a voter-passed initiative put in place the country’s strictest standards for cruise ship discharges, forcing these giant, floating cities to clean up their wakes. In Canada, we found marine parks where swimming was not recommended because of high fecal counts, and these were areas where only recreational boats could be to blame. On the west coast of the U.S., we found numerous signs about polluted public waters near public beaches (from stormater runoff, superfund sights, and just general pollution). In some of the areas of California with the strictest discharge standards for recreational boats, we’d find the city’s sewage outfall pipe right in the middle of the no discharge zone. In Mexico, anchored near fancy resorts and thinking about a swim, we’d watch the water cloud up and see unmistakable raw sewage floating toward the beach, always traceable to the town’s nearby outfall pipes. These problems have been particularly obvious from the sailboat, where we see the difference in the crystal clear waters just outside a bay and cross in to the suspiciously murky waters inside.

To Papeete’s credit, it is in the middle of a project to clean up its waters, in recognition of the importance of clean water for a healthy local environment and to support its tourist industry. They’ve done a pilot project in a small section of town and have set a laudable goal of attaining water quality sufficient for swimming throughout Papeete over the next few years. Kudos to Papeete for taking the lead on a great project! We hope that visiting boats will be part of the solution.

For now, we’re enjoying the clear waters of Aitutake, and are off to search for more sea monsters.

2 thoughts on “Aitutake: That’s Where It’s At!”

  1. Legend of One Foot Island — I hope that’s what I think it is — can’t wait to hear more.

    Glad you’re still safe and still adventuring — good luck finding sea monsters!

    1. Sadly, Jared, One Foot Island is a bit of a misnomer. It is, unfortunately, not a paradisaical isle full of hip-shaking, one-legged ladies waiting for their knight with shining crutches to come to their rescue. It’s one of the motus (that just means island) along the barrier reef surrounding Aitutaki. The story is that long ago, a man and his son were on the island collecting coconuts or fishing, when they saw canoes coming toward them. They knew these were people from a hostile island coming to kill them (and probably eat them), so the man told his son to walk in front, and he walked right in his footsteps so that there was only one set of tracks. Then he threw his son up into a pandanus tree and told him, “Don’t you come down from there until you see the canoes pass the horizon!” The men in the canoes made it to the island, but they were fooled when they saw only one set of tracks. They killed the man, but his son followed his dad’s instructions and stayed in the tree until the canoes were gone, and he was saved.

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