Monday, September 30, 2013

Suwarrow Nation

We spent just over two weeks (Sept. 3-19) at Suwarrow atoll in the Northern Cook Islands. The entrance through the pass was straightforward, and when we arrived in the anchorage, we were met by one of the rangers in an aluminum launch. He directed us to a spot to anchor. None of the information we had read about Suwarrow prior to coming mentioned that we would be directed to a spot to anchor, so that took us by surprise. The anchorage is shallow in areas and consists of sand sprinkled with many small (and a few large) coral heads. Since Suwarrow is very popular, the anchorage is also very crowded. It's a good idea to snorkel over your anchor (and those of the boats around you) to visualize possible scenarios should the wind come up and boats should shift. When we were there, many boats had partial wraps on coral, and at least one boat's anchor wasn't even set: it was just lying on its side on the bottom. 

Suwarrow anchorage under a rainbow

Silhouette at anchor in the Suwarrow Nation

After our arrival at Suwarrow, it took us several days to realize that we were not on the same time as the other boats in the anchorage. While all the available information states that Suwarrow is on UCT (Universal Coordinated Time) minus 10 (the same as the rest of the Cook Islands), for some reason, the Suwarrow rangers use UCT minus 9 as their local time. Patrick and I changed our clocks to be on the same page as the rangers and other yachties in the anchorage. We jokingly began to call Suwarrow "the Suwarrow Nation" to explain this eccentricity (and any others) about the way things are done on the atoll, much in the way people use the terms island time or faka Tonga ("it's the Tongan way") to explain away how things are done on other islands.

A signpost on the beach at Anchorage Island (the entrance motu) confirmed that we are over halfway to our goal for this cruising season: "Hawaii, 2000 miles." 2,000 miles as the crow flies translates into more nautical miles sailed; however, it still felt good to see a benchmark. 

2,000 miles to go
Suwarrow is the archetypal tropical atoll, with every shade of turquoise imaginable in the lagoon. On shore, hammocks strung between palm trees encourage relaxation: just beware of falling coconuts! The hammock on the windward side is a choice spot because a constant breeze blows over you. The rangers' compound consists of several buildings, but the "Suwarrow Shelter" is used as the park headquarters. A short walk away, a large, in-ground, cement lined water collection tank catches rainwater for boaters to use for showers or laundry. Wash basins are two halves of an old life raft container, one of which was repaired by Patrick while we were there. 

Lagoon and south tip of motu

Our friend Steig enjoying a read in the windward hammock

The Suwarrow Shelter displays flags and burgies from visiting yachties

Closer to the beach, a semi-circle of chairs and benches invites yachties to congregate and socialize. Suwarrow is renowned for being a very social anchorage, and there were numerous gatherings for sundowners, potlucks, barbecues---and even a movie night!---on the beach during our stay. Three boats got together to host the movie night---each boat contributing either the projector, power supply (generator), or sound system---and it was quite a novelty to watch "Master and Commander" projected onto a piece of fabric under the palms! Everyone in the anchorage brought popcorn.

The rangers sometimes sang a song to say farewell to the departing boats, accompanied by Harry (the head ranger) on his guitar. Harry is an accomplished guitarist with a unique style all his own: a combination of jazz and island music. He does original arrangements of such oldies as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," as well as his own songs, written in Cook Islands Maori. Charlie (the other ranger, born on Suwarrow) usually performed a traditional Cook Islands dance to the latter. 

Ranger Harry jamming with yachties at the Suwarrow Shelter

Charlie also endeavored to entertain the yachties by feeding the sharks on the windward side of the island. Whenever fish were caught (by either rangers or yachties), they were supposed to be cleaned at a feeding station set up on the windward side. This was to help avoid exciting the sharks in the lagoon. (While black tip reef sharks mostly cruise the anchorage, there are tiger sharks in the lagoon as well.) Charlie would announce over the radio when he was about to feed the sharks, and after a crowd had assembled, he would throw the fish heads, guts, and skins to the black and gray tipped reef sharks knifing through the shallows just offshore. This generally had the effect of whipping the sharks up into a feeding frenzy, and children, especially, would be thrilled by the way the sharks thrashed about as they competed over the scraps, sometimes flinging themselves partway out of the water! I am generally not a fan of feeding wild animals, but I think the rangers' rationale was to attract the sharks to the windward side, away from the lagoon where people swam and snorkeled. 

There were five or six cruising families with children (what yachties call "kid boats") in the anchorage, and it is always fun to interact with these very self-reliant kids who haven't grown up in the protective bubble that surrounds kids in the U.S.A. It was amazing to meet less-than four-foot Noami, who climbed the mast to stand on the spreaders of her boat, doing what looked like ballet drills or simply staring out to sea for hours at a time. Colin, 11, was well on the way to becoming a great guitarist, and he also mastered mounting a slack line that the twenty-something crew of Wizard's Eye strung up between two palms. Nikolai, 15, played violin, climbed and repaired the mast, dove on the anchor, and raced around the anchorage in an inflatable dinghy during his tenure at Suwarrow. We enjoyed meeting the families from Sueno, Flour Girl, Full Monty, Voyageur, and Gallivanter.

Colin mounts the slack line as Tyler and Jordan from Wizard's Eye look on

Jordan coaching one of the kids on the slack line

We were fortunate to have a week of calm weather after our arrival to explore the area. Suwarrow's lagoon is rich with life. From the cockpit, we frequently saw black tip reef sharks cruising by the boat. 

Black tip reef sharks cruising the anchorage were a common sight

A short dinghy ride away (marked by mooring buoys) is a manta ray cleaning station, where mantas gather to have cleaner wrasses (small fish) pick the debris from the huge plankton straining apparatus inside their mouths. We saw small numbers of mantas at the station on several different visits. They were not as large as the mantas we saw on Bora Bora, but they had a good five to six foot wing span. The visibility was not conducive to taking good pictures while we were there. The manta ray cleaning station is a little too deep to observe the fish while snorkeling: It would make a great shallow dive; but unfortunately, no scuba diving is allowed inside the lagoon (national park rules.) 

Manta ray
The reef closest to the motu side of the anchorage is shallow, warm, and does not have a great diversity of fish. However, the small reef at the back of the anchorage (not the shallow spot marked with two buoys) held a surprising number of species. Here, we again saw the cleaner wrasses hard at work; but this time, fish, not mantas, were their clientele. 

Bullethead parrotfish attended by cleaner wrasses

Damsel fish

Coral with blue chromis damsel fish

Checkerboard wrasse

A regal angelfish (head turned) displaying the different color patterns on all of its fins

Peacock grouper:  the royal blue fins and turquoise spots are much brighter in life than in the photo
Steephead parrotfish-blue/teal

Coral reef scene at Suwarrow

The reef in the lee of Whale island, also fairly close to the anchorage, is an excellent snorkeling location. The reef consists of a shallow ledge where multiple small fish feed on the coral. Just off the ledge, in deeper water, large coral heads and mounds contain a multitude of fish and large clams. 

Achilles Tang

Butterflyfish pair

This conch had a snail inside, so I returned it after photographing it

The mantles of this small species of giant clam look like frilly lips

These chromis damsel fish favored the green region of the spectrum

Our favorite snorkeling spot was Perfect Reef, a three mile dinghy ride from the anchorage. We entered the waypoints(taken from our chart) in a hand-held GPS unit in order to navigate to the reef. We also brought along a hand-held VHF radio in case of trouble. Perfect Reef is a large shallow area full of coral pinnacles and bommies spread over a sandy bottom. Exploring it was like exploring the landscape around a sunken ship. You can tell there is not much spear fishing in the national park, because even the parrotfish and groupers were not shy and tolerated snorkelers around them. I even saw a small sea turtle, bee-lining across the reef after Patrick startled it while moving the dinghy. 

Anchored in Perfect Reef

Clouds scudding over Perfect Reef mirror the coral heads below


Among the bommies in Perfect Reef

Puffer fish

Honeycomb grouper

Charlie, one of the rangers, took us on a tour of a nearby bird nesting motu. This was one of the highlights of our visit. The ground was covered with the nests of sooty terns (one speckled egg to a nest), and we had to be very careful of where we walked. Some of the tern eggs had already hatched, and their downy chicks ran along helter-skelter under the scrub. 

Our group at "Bird Island" watching the terns

Nesting sooty tern

Sooty tern with speckled egg

Some of the tern eggs ended up in unlikely places:  Do you think this one will hatch?

Sooty tern chick

Chow time!

The frigatebird hatch had occurred a bit earlier, and most of the frigatebird nests were already occupied by a solitary fluffed out chick, while mom and dad were off fishing or stealing fish from other birds. We observed great frigatebirds in every stage of life, from egg, to just-hatched chick, to juvenile, to full grown adults, and finally, to dust. 

Frigatebird egg and nest:  A frigatebird egg looks much like a chicken egg

There is nothing quite so ugly as a newly hatched frigatebird...

....nor quite so cute as a fully fluffed out one

Few days old chick

Juvenile frigatebird

Frigate family:  female (with blue bill), chick (under female), and male (red throat pouch faded and not inflated as the mating season is obviously over)

Frigate bird skull
If the parents weren't fishing out at sea, they were often sitting right on top of their young: We wondered how the poor chicks weren't squashed! 

Father frigate guarding his chick

Field of frigates:  The majority of the chicks' parents are off fishing; this gives you some idea of the density of the frigatebird nests

The photographer and his subject

A few late bloomers from species whose breeding seasons must have been even earlier were also nesting here and there. We saw a couple of large masked boobies with eggs. 

Indignant masked booby:  "I invented the neck pump!"

We also saw two red tailed tropic birds sitting on nests, one with a protective wing around her chick! It was interesting to note how all the different bird species nested side by side and seemed to get along harmoniously: human beings could take a lesson from them. 

Mother love:  red-tailed tropic bird with chick

After the visit to "Bird Island" (as the motu was nicknamed), we visited one of a group of motus called the "Seven Islands." Our purpose here was to see the numerous coconut crabs inhabiting the motu. I asked the ranger if we would see many during the day because I thought that coconut crabs were nocturnal. Charlie told me you can see the same number of crabs during the day as the night---but that the best time to see coconut crabs is when it rains. I learned that the largest coconut crabs bury themselves beneath the sand (probably a strategy to avoid drying out in the intense tropical heat) and only come out when it rains. Although it wasn't raining, we saw numerous small and mid-sized coconut crabs (with some help from Charlie, who opened a few coconuts with his machete and tossed them on the ground to draw the crabs out from the brush.) Coconut crabs come in two varieties that we have seen: Their shells are either highlighted with cobalt blue or red-orange. 

A drinking coconut (a green coconut):  the clear water inside is sweet

Coconut crabs are skilled tree climbers, but they usually climb backwards (this one was placed on the tree by Charlie for us to see)

Coconut crab on forest floor

Ranger Charlie explains how a coconut crab can rip off your finger

Two color varieties of coconut crab sharing a feast

We concluded the tour with a snorkel along a wall at the edge of reef. There were also many more coral pinnacles to explore near the Seven Islands motu. Previous visitors had seen sea turtles in this area, but we didn't.

After about a week at Suwarrow, the wind started to blow twenty knots from the east. This was great for all the cruisers heading west, ensuring them a swift downwind sail from Suwarrow to their next destination of Samoa, Niue, or Tonga. Since we were heading east, it was not ideal for us. About half the vessels that had been in the anchorage when we arrived departed with the freshening wind. Shortly after, they were replaced by a new wave of boats arriving from Maupiha(Mopelia), which had taken advantage of the same wind conditions to make their move from the Society Islands to the Cooks. The boats arriving from Maupiha included a friendly group of Kiwis, Tazzies, and Aussies, and we were happy to meet the crews of Pacific Flyer, Monkey Fist, and Saliander, as well as the Canadian flagged boat Interlude. Most of these boats did not stay in the anchorage more than a week. Although social life on the beach went on as usual, the wind precluded most of the other activities that make Suwarrow an interesting stop.

After most of these boats and the "kid" boats departed the anchorage, we were one of only five boats left at Suwarrow: a lonely feeling after being one of nineteen. Suddenly, the atoll got very quiet and social activities onshore ceased. The rangers started tidying up the motu and preparing the park headquarters for the upcoming cyclone season and their departure. While more boats will pass through the anchorage before the park closes on November 1st, their numbers will become fewer and fewer. One definitely sensed the end of the season. Finally, it was time for us to move on as well. Boats are limited to a two-week stay in Suwarrow (with the exceptions of severe weather or emergencies), and our two weeks were up. Two weeks had seemed like a month, because there is little to do at Suwarrow other than relax; we were well rested and refreshed. The forecast of twenty knots from the east wasn't showing signs of changing any time soon, so we said our farewells to the Suwarrow Nation and headed out into the washing machine.

Leaving the anchorage the same day we did---and actually headed in the same direction!---was SV Saliander, with Pete and Raewyn aboard. At Maupiha, Ray and Pete had helped Francis and Paul on the Australian boat Monkey Fist with their community service project, sponsored by the Australian Lion's Club. Have you ever seen one of those drop boxes that says, "Donate your old eyeglasses here?" In Australia, at least, this is where those eyeglasses go: to the remote islands of the South Pacific. The crew of Monkey Fist, assisted by Saliander, had been distributing reading and distance vision glasses to people throughout French Polynesia. Now that the two vessels were going in opposite directions, Francis and Paul gave Saliander half the remaining glasses supply to distribute in the Cook and Line Islands; while Monkey Fist would go on to distribute their share in Tonga. I thought the project filled what is probably a great need on the islands and told Raewin we would be happy to help out with the eyeglass project when we all got to Penrhyn. Which brings us to our next adventure...
Posted from Penrhyn Atoll via Ham Radio.

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