Nature paradise Penrhyn

By now we’ve established our usual routine for remote places: a nice balance between work and play… For the past few days we’ve spent the mornings restitching and reinforcing our dinghy cover and in the afternoons we explored the motus on the eastern side.

Yesterday we took Pitufa a few miles further south through the lagoon. While the central lagoon is deep (50m) with plenty, but clearly visible bommies, the area along the eastern shore is rather shallow, the water’s a bit murky and so full of bommies that we had to go very slowly and zigzag our way in–not the usual joyful lagoon sailing we enjoy, but slow motoring… Finding an anchoring spot between the shallow coral heads also wasn’t easy, but it turned out again, that the old ‘no risk, no fun’ saying is true: the motus down here are stunningly beautiful with long white and pink sand banks, wooded motus (a natural mix of shrubs, palmtrees, pandanus, pisonia trees) and thousands of red-tailed tropic birds!
It’s hard to walk around, because a nesting tropic bird sits under every second bush and noddy nests with chicks in all sizes are built in the branches above. Finding so much nature here is a very pleasant suprise!!



On the weekend we visited the little village Tetautua and attended the church there. The Cook’s are famous for their choirs, but at the moment there are only 15 villagers here. What they lacked in numbers, they made up in volume ;-)

Now we’re anchored a few miles further south, where we’ve already found bird motus with lots of nesting Tropic Birds and Noddies. These colonies are also quite loud and dissonant ;-)


Unspoiled nature

Nature paradise

In August 2018 we spent a few magical days off the beaten track on this uninhabited atoll.

(72 photos)



We’ve started to get our bearings here in Tongareva. It’s a big atoll (11 miles long, 6 miles wide) with three passes into a deep lagoon with many coral heads, but no islands within the lagoon. It has quite some land with motus stretching along the northern, eastern and western sides of the atoll, but only 2 settlements. The main village Omoka lies on the western side next to the main pass and the smaller village Tetautua on the opposite side of the lagoon (according to our elderly lonely planet with a population of 400 in one village and 100 in the other–according to locals it’s more like 200 and 60 people). One supply ship from Rarotonga calls every 2 or 3 months another one from Hawaii visits the island twice a year, but they have an airport with 1 flight per week.

During our chat with the officials we mentioned as usually that we are interested in nature and much to our suprise we were referred to a scientist who lives and works here. We met Mike White the next day and it was interesting talking to him. His main focus are studies on climate change, reefs and turtle protection, but he also works with the teachers to arrange science workshops at the local school and to involve the locals (and especially kids) in projects to protect turtles and reforest the motus that are endangered by erosion and to provide shade for turtle nests. Ironically Penrhyn is one of the atolls most affected by climate change while the locals have hardly any carbon footprint…

We were suprised at his success in influencing the locals towards more awareness of environmental issues, but it turns out that there were several favourable starting conditions:

The locals here have stopped doing copra already in the 70s, because it was no longer lucrative, therefore they hardly ever visit the remoter motus and don’t ‘clean’ motus by burning endemic shrubs. Seabirds and turtles find undisturbed areas and endemic shrubs they need.
The local community has established a ‘rahui’ (like in Rapa Iti, remember?) which means that several species of clams, etc. are protected all year round and can only be hunted/collected on special days.

We motored over to the eastern side of the atoll yesterday and are eager to explore Tongareva above and under the water.


Arrived in Tongareva

We arrived at the W-pass of Tongareva (Cook Islands, also known as Penrhyn) at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, went in without a prob with 1.5 knots of ingoing current against 12 knots of wind and some small standing waves in the very short pass. We anchored off the main village Omoka, the officials came by an hour later and cleared us in quickly. Now we’re free to explore Tongareva!


Comfy Sailing

Leeloo didn’t like Car o line much as she despises rolly anchorages and ignored all our efforts to get her interested in the boobies that were flapping all around the boat and sitting on the railing ogling her. A cat distinguishes 3 categories of animals: Can-be-eaten (go, catch!), can-eat-me (run, hide) and to-be-ignored (everything that doesn’t fall into the first two categories). She pretended the big seabirds were not there, no matter how often we pointed them out.

Leeloo doesn’t like passages either, but she’s no longer afraid when conditions get rough, she just stays in her sleeping box most of the time and gets seriously bored after a while. This passage has been so calm so far that she’s even hanging out in the cockpit with us. Also we’ve had fresh fish every day (so far we’ve caught two skipjack tunas and one yellowfin tuna), so the cat’s feasting on sashimi and getting noticably fatter. 110 nm to go to Tongareva (Penrhyn)!



Yesterday the wind got less and less and we took the opportunity to try out our newly bought gennaker (asymmetrical lightwind sail) for the fist time. We got a real bargain from Hongkong Sails (just 1.700 Euros incl. delivery to French Poly, ready within 2 weeks, delivered in 4 days to Tahiti!) and the sail itself looks nice, but the sock (the long tube in which the sail is hoisted and that is pulled over the sail to get it down again) is a bit of a flawed construction.
Anyway, we got the gennaker flying after some struggle and suddenly Pitufa was making 7 knots in only 10 knots of wind instead of 4 with the genoa… Towards the evening the wind picked up to 12 knots and we had quite a battle with the beautiful blue and yellow blister until it was back in its sock.

During the night the wind died down again and we were clanging and banging along with 2 knots. At 6 in the morning we gave up and started the engine. At 7 it looked like a breeze was coming back, yeah, genoa out–half an hour later the breeze was gone and the engine back on. At noon we tried to fly the gennaker again, but after initial 8 knots of breeze and brief spell of blister magic the wind was down to 4 knots and not even the most ambitious sail can fly with such little wind a waves that roll the boat..

Now we are motoring again with all hatches open and wind-catchers over the hatches, because it’s horribly hot without a cloud in the sky and no breeze. Even more so, because the pressure cooker has been on the stove for 2 hours – we caught 3 fish over the past 2 days and are making preserves :-)



Today at noon we reached Vostok, another uninhabited island of the Southern Line Island group. Vostok lies 5 nm ENE from the position that is shown on the charts–but we knew that from satellite pictures beforehand. It’s tiny, just half a mile wide and roughly triangular-shaped. It’s a beautiful island with a white beach all around and high Pisonia trees growing inland (it doesn’t have a lagoon, but also isn’t high enough to be a raised atoll…). Apparently this island was never touched by human settlers and looking at the 4 m high turquoise breakers smashing against the island even today in calm conditions, it’s rather obvious why nobody ever tried to live here.

We sailed around the island, going in as close as we dared taking pictures while hundreds of boobies, terns and frigate birds circled curiously around the boat. We saw 3 green turtles checking us out as well… While we’re sad that we couldn’t stop, we’re also happy that this little islands also remains inapproachable to others with less environmental-friendly plans than ours :-)

We keep on sailing towards Tongareva (also called Penrhyn, Cook Islands) and we still have 310 nm to go!


Boobie alarm

Getting our anchors up was easier than expected. Now we’re sailing goose-winged downwind in 15 kn from the East. Our friends the brown boobies have been following us, which was of course very nice of them, but made fishing almost impossible. First we didn’t dare to put a lure out, but after 20 nm we thought they had left. Each time we tried fishing again, a group showed up and we quickly rolled the lures in to avoid catching one of them…


Difficult paradise

This morning we are getting ready to leave Car o line Atoll. As hobby-ornithologists we enjoyed our stay here immensely–there are not many places left in the Pacific where such big colonies are still nesting. As going ashore is impossible unless the sea’s completely calm we didn’t spend as much time on the motus as we would have liked to, but of course the snorkeling was also interesting.

It was an exciting week, but of course we also worried a lot. Each time we ventured ashore we had to deal with the hassle of paddling the dinghy up on the shelf without getting caught by breakers. And of course during our time ashore the nagging worries at the back of our heads remained: What if the swell picked up and we wouldn’t be able to get off in time? What if the dinghy got flipped in a breaker and we’d be stranded miles from the boat without a working outboard engine? What if the wind shifted and Pitufa was swept against the reef before we could get to her? What if she broke free and was gone by the time we returned??

We take nothing but pictures and our impressions away from the island and of course we left nothing but footprints (as we always do). Car o line is a wildlife reserve and we hope that other cruisers respect it as we do. Even if somebody wanted to exploit the ressources of the island they would have a hard time: Anchoring on the steep shelf is a real challenge, lobstering would be quite difficult on the reef with breaking waves and even more so getting back to the boat unscathed in the dark, coconut crabs seem to live mainly on the southern and northern motu (where there are palm trees), but there’s no safe anchorage close to these motus. The ciguatera situation is also unclear.

All went well and we’re glad we came here. Now we hope that we’ll get our two anchors, chains and lines back aboard. The young brown boobies will miss their floating playground and we’ll miss them ;-)


Underwater world

Whenever the sea’s not completely calm going ashore is out of question here, so we’ve concentrated on the underwater world for the past few days. The reef looks different from what we’re used to: In the shallow water the coral’s mainly dead (apart from some baby staghorn giving it another try), but between 5 and 10 m and in some places down into the drop-off beautiful stone coral in different shapes (plenty of Pachyseris, they look like morels growing on a tree trunk…) cover impressive bommies and deep canyons in between.

There are many fish around, but not too many different species:
We always have a few grey reef sharks, black-tip reef sharks and white-tip reef sharks accompanying us, but they’re mainly small. As we’re out on the ocean here we expected to see some big oceanic species and were always hopefully keeping one eye out towards the dark-blue while holding on to the dinghy firmly ;-) Unfortunately we haven’t seen any of those big sharkies that must be out there…

Swarms of young black triggers hang out everywhere, barracudas follow us, but keep their distance, big snappers are everywhere, big jacks flash by, but apart from that all fish seem rather small (mainly surgeons, some napoleons, some parrots, few butterflies, etc.) and most surprisingly: no big groupers at all. We find that puzzling, maybe an illegal fishing vessel fished the big fish off? Or maybe the big sharkies come in at night and leave only small fish behind? (that would be nicer but is of course less likely).

The greatest attraction here are the green turtles: Each time we go snorkeling we see a few, most are small, but some measured more than a metre and they were all very curious, checked us out and stuck their stubby noses close to our cameras :-) In the Tuamotus we don’t see as many turtles in a whole season as we do here in a day–they are still mercilessly hunted by the locals there…


A wreck inside the lagoon

From our anchorage we saw something that looked like a boat far down south inside the lagoon. First we thought it was just some optical illusion with maybe a palmtree and a bush behind it, but with the binoculars it became clear that there was really some kind of boat, but how was that possible with no pass into the lagoon? Was is a wreck that had been swept in? Had a boat with a lifting keel somewhow made it through the tiny boatpass on the eastern side?

2 days ago the conditions allowed us to explore down south and we were astonished to find the a rather well-preserved monohull (called Lyderic) with the stern beached and attached to strong moorings next to a make-shift hut made of driftwood. The mainsail had been used as a bed, the roof to collect water. It seems he used material and infrastructure left by the Falconer family who spent some years here before in the late 80s. We found tools, shoes and all other kinds of daily-life paraphernelia chaotically strewn around inside and outside the hut, like the owner had left in a hurry without taking much with him (I say he, because we only found big men’s shoes). Some of the things looked eerily new, like someone might still be hiding there (maybe watching us from afar). It was a creepy experience to snoop around his things…

In the evening we asked on our SSB net and friends found some info about the boat: apparently a French hermit lived on the island for a while before he was discovered by a research vessel in 2014 and removed by the Kiribati government in 2015.
He must have a had a tough time here, as the island is very dry mainly covered in coarse coral rubble. Remains of a Polynesian settlement on the northernmost motu prove that those seafarers tried to settle here, but also gave up after a while. Attempts to establish workers on a copra colony on the southernmost motu also weren’t overly successful.

We were puzzled by the fact that the hermit didn’t pick the southern motu where he would have had an easier time with lots of coconuts and presumably coconut crabs to catch (we haven’t seen coconut crabs on the western side–no wonder, there are hardly palmtrees here ;-) ) But we heard from French cruisers that the southern motu is infested with mosquitoes and no-nos.
We haven’t seen much fish in the lagoon and we heard from French cruisers that Ciguatera is also a problem here.



Today we took the dinghy out to explore some of the motus along the western side of the atoll. At high tide in calm conditions (like now, when there’s hardly any swell from the south or north) it’s easy to paddle the dinghy up the shelf of the outer reef and then on in the shallow water to the motu behind.

They are all different:

The motu just in front of us consists of coral rubble that is piled up high (about 5 m) and steep with a plateau on top. The coarse rubble is covered in low shrubs–just the kind of landscape sooty terns seem to like. They nest in thousands just on the ground and underneath the shrubs (Wikipedia talks of half a million around the atoll…), circle the motu and the air vibrates with their shrill calls. Some frigate birds sit on the higher branches and add their cat-fight-like shrieks to the cacophony.

Further south we beached the dinghy in between slabs of dark coral. The tiny motu behind it consists of the same dark, solid coral plate with some finer shell sand piled up with just a few scrubs on top–just what masked boobies and red-tailed tropic birds like. We saw several couples of masked boobies around the motu and tropic birds with chicks under the shrubs.

We dinghied by another bigger motu with more land and higher leaf-trees (family pisonia). Such trees are popular with noddies and red-footed boobies who build their nests high up with the white chicks ogling down on visitors.

While we wandered around and also while we were riding slowly in the dinghy terns and boobies constantly circled us watching curiously what we were up to. We saw some traces of human visitors ashore (bottles around old fire places, a raft of the kind Polynesians use to collect lobsters), but apparently the birds haven’t had enough negative experiences with humans to be shy. At least not the generation we’re meeting here ;-)


Brown Boobies

If you’re young and you’re hip and you happen to be an adolescent brown booby living on Car o line Island, there’s a new cool place to hang out: Pitufa!
This morning when the cat and I climbed up the companionway there were two adolescent brown boobies (clearly recongnizable in their dark-brown feathers) sitting on the solar panel, ogling us suspiciously. They flew away when a bored-looking Leeloo (boobies are lighter, but much bigger than our cat) strolled past them. When we came back from snorkeling, we were delighted to see another (or the same?) two boobies sitting on the anchor line and the bow-sprit. We approached them slowly taking pictures all the time and thinking what a special moment we had caught.

By now (it’s 5 and we’re sitting with a beer in the cockpit) we have 4 sitting on the bow-sprit ignoring us even when we take close-up pics from half a metre away and another 10 circling the boat waiting for their chance to hang out in the new hip booby-meeting point :-)



At noon we reached the southern tip of Car o line Island after a rough and swift sail. In the shade of the island conditions calmed down immediately which seemed ideal to deal with some repairs. It took us 6 attempts with 2 different anchors (we didn’t want to use our good main anchor fearing we might lose it) until we were finally safely anchored. Now we’re gently swaying with coral reaching the surface in front of us and the drop-off going down to 100 m behind us (and then on to several km…). We’re just drinking a bottle of home-made bubbly watching boobies and curious watching us and the boat ;-) Life is good!

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