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suwarrow ~ a true treasure

Posted by on April 7, 2014

September 2 – 16, 2013

Suwarrow, also known as Suvarov, is a nature reserve and small coral atoll belonging to the Cook Islands. It is located about 440 miles east-northeast of American Samoa, and there is not another island within 200 miles from Suwarrow. Every year, from April through October, the population of Suwarrow consists only of two park rangers who tend to the island and its visitors. During the cyclone seasons, except for the local wildlife and maybe a few passing boats, Suwarrow remains unpopulated.

ship wreck that supposedly claimed the life of Tom Neale's brother

In general, entry through Suwarrow’s only reef pass is quite simple. There are no markers or buoys, but with proper sunlight, the water is easy to read.

As we rounded the corner to the anchorage where visiting boats are permitted, we were expecting to see maybe four other boats that we knew would be there. Our mouths dropped open and we were quite surprised by the dozen or so boats already sitting peacefully at anchor.

Moments later we were in for another surprise when we were greeted by Suwarrow’s own welcoming committee. About a half dozen small black tipped reef sharks followed us and circled nearby as we dropped our anchor and chain to the bottom. We were in awe as we stared at these curious creatures. A neighboring cruiser yelled across telling us not to worry about the sharks. He had been swimming with them and they were fine.

Once our hook was settled, we were boarded by Ranger Harry who helped us complete the clearance formalities. After so many months of cruising in non-English speaking countries, it was a refreshing change to have a full conversation without needing any translation. Harry was laid back, and we knew immediately that Suwarrow was going to be a lot of fun.

While I would love to write a full description of Suwarrow and what a truly special place it is, as many of you know, I’ve fallen unacceptably behind in posting about our travels. Therefore, I’m going to touch on our highlights, and refer to a beautifully written description of this wonderful place by Kathy on Mystic Moon. Her words are absolutely perfect!

One of the first things on our agenda in Suwarrow was to snorkel with the manta rays. A few weeks prior to our arrival, a manta ray had gotten caught in the lines of a buoy near the cleaning station. The local sharks, and supposedly a tiger shark included, played their part in consuming the free food. Swimming and snorkeling were banned for some time until the rangers were sure the sharks had settled down. Knowing this information made some of us a little nervous about what we would find in the water. However, the only sharks we saw during our manta ray snorkel were a couple of small blacktip reef sharks swimming near the bottom.

Colin going for a closer look at the giant manta ray

manta ray at a Suwarrow cleaning station

During our first week in Suwarrow, we got to help celebrate Zack’s 8th birthday (s/v Flour Girl). Ranger Charlie kicked off the birthday party with some palm tree climbing instruction for the kids. A treasure hunt, potluck, birthday cake, and presents followed right behind.

palm tree climbing demonstration

Charlie at the top of a VERY tall palm

helping with proper foot placement

enjoying the view from the top

working to keep proper hand & foot position

managing to pause for a smile

the fittest adult giving it a try

nothing like the freshest coconut water!

Since Suwarrow is a shark sanctuary of sorts, several of us were interested in snorkeling the pass to see if we could catch a glimpse of some of the bigger boys. The adults took an initial scouting trip to see what we could find before allowing any children in the vicinity. We anchored the dinghy near a reef just to the side of the pass and jumped in to have a look. Sure enough, we had to constantly be aware of our 360 degree surroundings. In addition to the usual blacktip reef sharks, there were also gray reef sharks.

blacktip reef shark swimming on a reef in Suwarrow's pass

gray reef shark with a white-tipped dorsal fin

giant clams tucked in coral crevices

schools of fish near the pass

At the end of our first week in Suwarrow, Wil and David (s/v Sueño) went on a fishing trip with Ranger Charlie. Wil provided the fuel for Charlie’s boat, and they departed before the sun was up. They returned with a boat load of wahoo and barracuda. Wil and David divided the wahoo between our two boats, and the barracuda was donated for the rangers’ potluck that evening. Wil almost had a beautiful tuna, but as he got it next to the boat, with its big eye staring right up at him, the tuna gave a slap of its tail and shook the hook as if to say “not this time”.

massive coconut crabs prepared by the Suwarrow rangers

Ranger Harry grilling fish for everyone

using a stone to crack open the coconut crabs

Whenever fish scraps were available, Charlie would provide some shark feeding entertainment on the opposite side of the island, facing the pass. Usually this feeding would take place just before sunset. The moment human bodies exited the palm tree forest and stepped foot onto the beach, a variety of different sharks began to circle. Charlie, along with the bucket of scraps, would make his way into the water, and perch himself on a rock barely above the water’s surface. Then, the frenzy would begin!

new meaning to the words "shark feeding frenzy"!

Charlie feeding the sharks

Both park rangers were absolutely wonderful with all the kids. Every day, a large group of kids played on the beach and under the palm trees near the ranger station. I’m sure the kids must have tested the patience of the rangers, but they seemed to handle things in stride. Charlie even created a field trip for the kids. He had them come with notebooks and all appropriate supplies, and he took them on a walking tour of the island. They picked up any washed up trash, he showed them turtle nest locations, they learned how to identify coconut crab holes, and he taught them how to make coconut bread over a camp fire grill.

During evening potlucks, Ranger Harry would play his guitar and sing, and Charlie would perform right along side. Other cruisers would join in with their guitars, and as usual, Colin participated in the musical fun.

pinky finger infected by a fish hook wound in Pacific waters

While the fishing trip with Charlie had been a huge success, Wil had managed to accidentally hook his pinky finger when he was dealing with a big wahoo. The puncture wound was small, but it managed to run deep enough to cause problems. It was only a matter of a day or two before it quickly became infected. Treatment included hot salt water soaks and Neosporin ointment. However, the wound only continued to get worse. We were over 400 miles from the nearest medical aid, and we were starting to grow concerned. A more aggressive treatment was necessary. In addition to oral antibiotics, using a syringe filled with betadine solution, we directly flushed the inside of the wound. The infection was still questionable by the time we departed Suwarrow. Therefore, depending on the course of the infection, we didn’t know if our next destination would be American Samoa or Tonga.

Suwarrow holds a special place in our hearts. With the addition of some pretty incredible wildlife, being in Suwarrow with Harry and Charlie, and the other cruisers, was like being at summer camp. Suwarrow is a true treasure.

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