Cook Islands: Tickled out of its shell

By Richard Robinson

A little gentle persuasion works wonders on the underwater wildlife in the Cook Islands, writes Richard Robinson.

A green turtle comes along for a swim at Arutanga Passage off Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Photo / Richard Robinson
A green turtle comes along for a swim at Arutanga Passage off Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Photo / Richard Robinson

The turtle trying to catch a quick snooze in the peaceful waters of Aitutaki was understandably irritated and looked inclined to shoot through when I woke it up with my underwater flash.

But Onu Hewett, owner of diving company Bubbles Below, knew that one of my goals on this visit to the Cook Islands was to photograph a turtle.

Swimming up to the grumpy shellback, he tickled its feet and somehow conveyed the message that it would be a personal favour if it could hang around for a few pictures.

The turtle, no longer looking so grumpy, didn't just hang around but almost posed for some pictures before heading off to find another cave to resume its interrupted sleep.

Amazing. But that's what diving in the Cook Islands is like. The underwater scenery is great but there's also a real feeling of friendliness both above and below water.

Onu - whose name means turtle in Cook Islands Maori - is so much at home underwater that he becomes just like his namesake.

From a distance, where I could not even see a cave, he knew there was a turtle sleeping in it. And when he went to persuade the turtle to let me take some photos, the two of them looked like brothers in the water.

I not only got my photos but felt I had made two new friends.

It was like that everywhere on the Cooks.

I hadn't even got out of the car at Cook Island Divers on Rarotonga when owner Greg Wilson, with a grin from ear-to-ear, was handing me a handle of beer announcing that it was the best home-brew on the islands ... and the trip continued in that vein.

The diving on Rarotonga was fantastic with instructors Ben Nicholson and Shane Thompson going out of their way to show me their favourite spots and point out marine life that they thought would make great pictures.

Shane with his little point-and-shoot camera took great delight in trying to outshoot me, while Ben kept trying to get me as close as possible to sharks and rays.

But equally good as the diving was sitting down at the end of the day, taking the time to enjoy a home-brew or two with Greg and the boys, listening to tales of the past, how they were the first dive company in the islands, how the storms in recent years have affected the reefs, their different dive philosophies and, later in the evening, tall tales about local legends and, of course, beautiful women.

If you were to go there just for a dive and skip the hanging around at the end of the day you would miss out on the full experience they have to offer. By the time I left for Aitutaki, I felt not so much a customer as one of the boys.

But Neil Mitchell, the owner of Aitutaki Scuba, was quick to tell me that regardless of whatever brainwashing Greg may have done, his home-brew was far superior. Then followed Onu with his turtle magic. I was immediately as much at home on Aitutaki as I had been on Rarotonga and the underwater scene was so marvellous that a dozen dives left me eager for more.

On Aitutaki, the best way to de-fizz after a lot of diving is by becoming a member of the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club. There didn't seem to be much game fishing going on but it has a fantastic view, the cheapest beer on the island (sadly no home-brew) and it's a great place to round off your Cook Islands diving experience.

And there's no doubt that making friends is just as important as enjoying the stunning underwater scenery ... even as important as getting my first photo of a turtle.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates between nine and 11 services a week between Auckland and Rarotonga, and a weekly direct service between Christchurch and Rarotonga. Flights from Rarotonga to Aitutaki are provided by Air Rarotonga.

Diving: See Cook Islands Divers or Bubbles Below.

Further information: See cookislands.travel.

Richard Robinson dived on Aitutaki with the help of Air New Zealand and Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.

- NZ Herald

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