Snorkeling in the Cook Islands allows you to see beautifully colored coral. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Snorkeling in the Cook Islands

Snorkeling is a rare adventure for me, so I try to make the most of every opportunity. Coming from a cold region in the world, I never had much of an opportunity to travel to great places to snorkel, but the South Pacific is wonderful. There you have a warm climate, calm sea, and clear lagoons, teaming with colorful fish that are attracted to the coral reefs. I prepared myself by swimming daily laps in a cold college pool for years. It definitely helps and fins help you brace against the tides, too. The first day I made the mistake of wearing only a bathing suit and got sunburned, but I learned from my mistake and from then on, I wore a top that covered more. Each day I was out 3 to 4 hours; it was grand weather, and the water was so warm and inviting.

A motorboat picked up a small group of 4 to 6 of us, and off we went for a 15 minute ride to the reef. The local boat owner stayed in the boat, as the rest of us went overboard and began the underwater sea experience. Each time was different. At one place in a lagoon on Aitutaki, there were giant sea clams. Another place had a shallow sandbar and a giant fish stayed and circled the little motor boat the entire time we were underwater, quite nearby.

Once in the water, it doesn’t take long to get totally engrossed in the spectacular underwater world surrounding you. There are various types of coral: different kinds and shapes of many colors, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. I was careful not to let currents thrust me into the sharp, hard-as-rock, living coral. I swam round looking at the colorful fish and trying to identify a few of over 500 known varieties. There were the colorful fish: angelfish, butterfly fish, Moorish idol, clownfish, parrotfish, and rainbow wrasse. There were unusual fish: the spiny puffer, the long horned cowfish, and the spot fin lion fish. Some of the fish were small, some swam in schools, some were loners, and all darted about hunting for a source of food.

When I came upon a giant clam, it was amazing to see it there, attached to the bottom of the sea floor, and open for predators as they swam by. It is only the second time I have seen them: the first time was on the Great Barrier Reef, where there was an enormous one. At that time, the guide dropped a small pebble and the clam snapped shut. It was a frightening thought that reminded me to stay clear, so as not to be trapped with a foot or hand by such a monster of a clam. So when I saw them again in the South Pacific, I carefully swam around them and went on to more colorful coral and beautiful fish.

Another day, I was pleased to add sea turtles to my underwater experience. Several times I swam with small sharks and sting rays.

Each time I went out on a motor boat or speed boat, I saw people fishing in the lagoons. Some villages still set up a fish trap with a circle of stones and an opening on one side. When the tide goes out, the fish are trapped, and each family in the village shares the bounty. Locals walk out at low tide and pick up sea cucumbers, which are highly prized to eat, or put fresh in two-liter soda bottles and sold along the highway. The going price was 80 dollars a bottle for these sea creatures.

At the end of each day of snorkeling I could hardly wait to go again the next day. There was so much to see and it was such a fun experience.

(posted February 23, 2016)