If it’s natural beauty that made Suwarrow stunning to visit, it’s the park rangers who made it unforgettable. Nowhere were the two more intertwined than on our daily jaunts to explore the atoll. For most of these, Apii was our guide. This Cook Islander was a master forager, teaching us how to catch coconut crabs one day (we were poor learners, but reaped from the bounty he collected), hunting at night for lobsters on the reef, and spearfishing at locations around the lagoon.
We were out discovering different parts of the atoll every day, snorkeling in the a pristine and spectacular underwater environment. Every place is has something that stands out, and in Suwarrow it’s an incredible variety of hard corals. They were the most vibrant we’ve seen; only Fakrava comes close, but Suwarrow had an unprecedented diversity of forms and species. Within the atoll, each spot we visit is different: some are underwater versions of Bryce Canyon, with tall ridges of colorful coral and deep canyons carved between them; others are long sandy stretches dotted with pinnacles coral heads.
You know that overwhelming feeling- of suddenly stepping into a spectacular landscape, and having it hit you with full force? The drama of looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the roar of a crowd entering a large, packed stadium. Swimming in the atoll reefs can have the same impact. I came away feeling like it all just needed a swelling soundtrack to complete the effect. There were lots of fish- in addition to the spectrum of smaller technicolor reef fish, there were the BIG kids. You couldn’t go out without seeing groups of large parrotfish, grandaddy groupers, the behemoth Napoleon wrasse – easily four feet, and heavier than any of the children! Our little underwater camera can’t begin to do justice to the environment we inhabited underwater.
The one thing that was consistently present (and consistently uncomfortable) were the sharks. Jamie did a lot of spearfishing with one of the park rangers, and there was a strict buddy system: after one person spears a fish, the second person keeps the sharks away from the catch. As soon as the fish is above the water, the sharks back off. There is some kind of unspoken rule that speared fish underwater are the property of the sharks, but speared fish out of the water- even if they are bleeding down the hunter’s arm- are the property of the hunter.
In my case, I had a couple of uncomfortable encounters where sharks were more than passively curious. It is extremely disconcerting to see a gray shark moving towards you at speed, and with purpose…it is distinctly different from the pattern of sharks we’re accustomed to sharing the waters with now, who casually cruise by, occasionally doing a lap to check you out, but always moving on. I had that happen two days in a row, and decided the universe was telling me to take a day off from swimming! You couldn’t so much as dip a bucket of water off the boat without attracting a couple of black tips.
Back on the primary motu, Anchorage Island, James gave a cooking class- teaching how to make the coconut pancakes we had a most evenings, and beignet-like puffs steeped in coconut cream. How else would we know how to pick the right coconut? It must be sprouting, you see, and the best will have 2-3 leaves in the emerging green stem. The fish were cleaned, and cast off parts saved for the children to throw to sharks on the outside of the atoll, an evening ritual feeding frenzy.
Apii showed us how to sample the grouper’s liver (an, um, acquired taste) and live pearl oysters. While James cooked up the fish on the stove,cruisers gathered at the “yacht club” with dishes from the fresh vegetables acquired before leaving French Polynesia- a welcome addition to diversify the diet of the rangers.
The interest James & Appi had in was in sharing their knowledge with visitors to the atoll, from foraging for meals to exploring the wonders underwater, have marked it forever as a magical stop on our Pacific travels.