Cook Islands: A South Pacific for the Rest of Us - Page 2
|Snorkeling near the Cook Islands (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)|
Cook Islanders, like most Polynesians, straddle the line between the modern world and their traditional past as warriors, tribal groups, and accomplished navigators. Ancient seafarers from the Cook Islands contributed to New Zealand’s native culture—both groups are called Maori—and that kinship continues to shape the islands today.
A New Zealand protectorate until 1965, the Cooks retain many artifacts of their colony status: Cook Islanders share the Kiwi accent; New Zealand’s currency is used interchangeably with the local tender; and most visitors will arrive aboard an Air New Zealand flight, which operates direct from Los Angeles to Rarotonga before continuing on to Auckland, just a few hours away.
Minutes after disembarking this flight myself, I drop my bags in an impeccable beach bungalow flanked by brilliant white sand. Truth be told, however, I harbor an innate impatience for basking on beaches, no matter their snow-whiteness. So I grab my gear and burn out the door to hitch a boat ride beyond the fringing lagoon with Steve Lyon of Pacific Divers.
The atoll lagoons that surround the islands are a core feature both to local life and to visitors in the forms of food, protection, and recreation. Ancient geologic forces created coralline rings around each island that protect shallow interior lagoons perfect for flats fishing, snorkeling, and paddling. But outside these rings, the reefs drop quickly like exposed cliff faces into thousands of feet of open ocean—something I see firsthand when Lyon moors his dive boat near the edge of the drop.
I roll backward off the boat. As I descend into a playground of submarine volcanic rock formations coated with thick blankets of stony corals, I kick alongside boulders big as two-story houses that lean precariously over the abyss. And I let myself sink slowly into the blue water while jacks stalk baitfish along the ocean’s edge.