Before they dipped their heads into the waters of Rarotonga, our Kiwi kids had seen a fish only on a plate, a screen or the end of a hook.
My daughter Zoe is one of those A&E-destined children born with a streak of fearlessness that overtakes, runs around and overrules even the most conservative Safety Dad. She climbs up things, jumps off things, and wedges herself into things in a manner which — I like to imagine — could someday manifest itself as a risk-taking titan of the corporate world. The kind who can, y'know, pay for Safety Dad's safe retirement.
In the meantime she keeps me ever vigilant. And in the water, she's in her element.
It's in the balmy waters of Rarotonga — that near-perfect circle of tropical paradise — that our kids find for the first time the joy of swimming with fish.
When she first sees fish underwater, 8-year-old Zoe pulls her snorkel aside and squeals "Feeesh! Feeesh!", flapping about in a manner guaranteed to scatter feeesh. Beneath her, threadfin butterfly fish and gorgeous triggerfish (which in some parts go by the name of Picasso fish, bearing as they do a resemblance to the work of the famed Spanish doodler) mooch and weave through the rocky outcrops. A gang of seabream loiters with intent, pecking at scraps around the rocky base of a coral mound.
The great thing about tropical reef fish is they have the right attitude to the
hectic pace of modern life. When we find them in the Rarotongan waters, the fish
are easy to follow at their languid pace. If Cook Islanders are rightly noted for embodying the relaxed spirit of "Island Time", it's their finned friends who do it best. Any slower and these guys wouldn't be getting water through their gills.
One of the handy things about Rarotonga is that if the weather is coming in on one side of the island, you'll find a sheltered spot on the other. And, famously, it's hard to get lost with one road that goes all the way around the island. We were able to park up at quiet beaches, set up a base under a palm tree on isolated white sand beaches and find great snorkelling spots just off the shore.
We took our tips on snorkelling locations from morning chats with the staff at Pacific Resort, or from the smiling dudes running the sandwich shacks that dot the coastal road. For a little more than a tenner, you'll get a beer, a tuna grill that could barely fit into a shoebox and the inside word on that day's best spot.
Some of Rarotonga's best snorkelling spots are seldom more than a short walk from the sand, a grown-up swimmer can generally stand up in all but the highest tide. For those exploring further out in areas where the reef is further from shore, say Tikioki Beach or the superb expanse of Muri, it bottoms out at around 3m in a heavy tide. These
waters are warm and eminently swimmable all year.
And swim we do. Zoe is a shivering, chattering ball of energy and exhaustion by the time she leaves the fish behind.
She's actually had only one visit to A&E so far, but I know my daughter and I will be returning to swim with the fish of Rarotonga.
TIPS FOR TROPICAL SNORKELLING WITH KIDS
● Get some pool time before the holiday. Even if junior excelled in swim lessons last year, a couple of trips to the public pool in the weeks before departure give a great opportunity for your kid to get back their sea legs, and a chance for you to assess their swimming level. Try them in a mask and snorkel in a pool before hitting the unfamiliar environs of the ocean.
● Tell them to look out for your hand signals underwater, so you can point out the fish. You can practise this in the pool by chucking objects on the ground. Pretty soon they get a buzz out of pointing the fish out to you.
● When you get to Rarotonga, and you're within the reef, stay near them. Obviously.
● Put them in a lifejacket. Again, obviously.
Air New Zealand flies daily between Auckland Rarotonga. One-way fares start from $323.
Pacific Resort at Muri Beach has a range of great family-focused accommodation and activities.