Rarotonga, Cook Islands – Part 2 – tropical vistas and amazing turtle snorkels…..

If you missed the photos from the first part of our July 2023 trip to Rarotonga, you can find them all here: Rarotonga Part 1. Now onto the second part of our adventure. You guessed it more beautiful beaches, warmth and snorkeling….. and plenty of turtles!

Wednesday 12 July – another day and more sunny snorkeling…

The plans for the 4th day of our trip involved more snorkeling. We had woken up to more sunshine and beautiful weather, so thought we’d take advantage of it with a snorkel at our preferred spot not far from our accommodation.

The beaches are so beautiful with white sand and crystal clear water. It really isn’t hard want to dive right in with all our fishy friends.

We would occasionally have a few swimmers and snorkelers on the beach and in the water with us as there was holiday accommodation dotted along this stretch of beach, but there were never any crowds and it was super easy access into the shallow lagoon for snorkeling.

It was perfect snorkeling conditions for the kids, minimal current, great visibility and plenty of fish. The lagoon is shallow for a couple of hundred metres but we could easily swim out to some of the drop-off and bommies for bigger fish.

Zinnia’s favourites were the blue starfish that were everywhere….

There were plenty of local butterfly fish and some very cute box puffers in colours we hadn’t seen before, that I enjoyed following around.

Between snorkels the kids had plenty of fun in the sand. Apparently Zinnia was keen on being a sand castle……

There were also plenty of one of my other favourite tropical fish – Picasso trigger fish, around. Those along with several varieties of butterfly fish, and many cute box puffers kept me entertained for long snorkels while the kids took it in turns accompanying us and playing on the beach.

The kids had noticed a few people out kayaking on the lagoon and were keen to see if we could hire kayaks too. We did promise to investigate that option, even if just to stop the nagging!

Rainy afternoon walks….

The beautiful weather of the morning had given way to some tropical rain, so some of us rested and others watched a movie. Meanwhile we were visited by a local cat, who definitely wanted to play!

Zinnia, Soren and I then decided to enjoy our last afternoon at this house with a wander around to check out more of the local animals and plants.

We wandered down the local dirt road that we had been driving up and down to our holiday house. None of the roads off the main highway are good, but everyone drives at about 10km/h to avoid dogs and roosters, so it isn’t a real issue.

The middle of Rarotonga is all rainforest and mountains. From the coast you can see the mountains, covered in tropical vegetation.

Zinnia and Soren found plenty of dogs just sleeping in the middle of the road, that they had to pat. Along with quite a few chickens and roosters. The variety of colours in the roosters was amazing and we found quite a few pretty ones. They are certainly smaller than our well fed backyard chickens!

Apparently Rarotonga is the only of the 15 islands making up the Cook Islands nation that has dogs. The dogs roam freely but all have homes or are otherwise captured and taken to the SPCA. We came across dogs everywhere, including plenty of beach dogs. They were always friendly but you are warned not to feed the dogs or they will follow you home.

The roosters and chickens, on the other hand, apparently inhabit all of the Cook Islands and and are virtually all wild. They sleep in trees and eat local bugs. Eggs were quite expensive to buy in Rarotonga so we assume that despite the large number of chickens around they are not good layers! Reportedly the local chickens also taste terrible and are not used for meat. Chicken meat is generally imported.

Like most tropical places, we found a variety of beautiful plants and flowers growing wild. There was no shortage of colourful flowers and bushes to be seen on our walks.

One of the things you immediately notice when you arrive in Rarotonga, are all the roadside graves. Family members are buried together on the family property and graves are lovingly cared for and usually have an array of flowers and plants. Most were also covered from the weather by a range of different well maintained constructions. We also saw a few cemeteries from the main highway, but apparently these are at near capacity and for cultural reasons it is practice to bury loved ones close to home.

For those that don’t own their own land, you can still bury your loved ones on leased land, you just need the permission of the land owner, which is often given.

Soren and Zinnia also found a local soccer field and decided they needed to have a run around. The pitch did have quite a few resident chickens!

Exploring more of the island….

The afternoon continued to be rainy and overcast, so rather than go for another snorkel, we thought we’d do a bit more exploring and drive around the whole island. We had covered a lot of the area back and forwards to supermarkets, snorkeling spots and dive shops, but had never done a whole loop or been over near the airport side much. We decided on an anticlockwise loop and set off.

The main highway is well used by motorcycles, scooters and bikes. The road surface isn’t great but it would be fun to ride around. Sadly, our bikes were all back at home. There are quite a few places that hire bikes, so maybe on a future trip we’ll rent some bikes. If it wasn’t for all the snorkel and dive gear we were considering just hiring bikes for the 9 days, rather than a car, as it really isn’t far to anywhere and most of the traffic on the highway is fairly slow.

We decided to stop at one of the areas we’d driven past a few times to check out the lagoon between some nearby islands. This is apparently a popular swimming spot, but less good for snorkeling.

We did find plenty of cute crabs. They were everywhere on the sand….

The population of the Cook Islands is a bit over 15,000 people with 75% living in Rarotonga. Despite the small population, there are a huge number of churches. Most are Christian. As you drive around the highway you come across a church seemingly every 30 seconds.

As we made our way around to the other side of the island, Astrid and Anto showed us where the dive boat had departed from the previous day. It was a bit windy and less inviting looking than the beautiful weather they’d had the previous morning, for their short trip out to the dive sites.

On the way back around the island, we spotted plenty more mowing goats. There was no shortage of grass here for them to eat. Inti, our alpaca, would have been in heaven with all the grass. Less so the humidity!

Cocktails and spice…

We had made a booking for the Mexican restaurant, La Casita, that we’d been keen to try a couple of days earlier. They made a pretty nice coconut daiquiri and the kids decided to spend some of their pocket money on mocktails.

Soren decided to try the local ‘hot sauce’. Lets just say it was definitely hot! Anto and I only needed a small amount and Soren’s face told the story…..

Afer a very pleasant dinner and with the sun setting, the kids convinced us we needed to stop by the Muri Night Markets again on the way back, for dessert.

We’d had dinner at the markets the night before. It was a little later by the time we arrived tonight, and while busy, the lines weren’t too long.

The kids had designs on crepes and bubble waffles. The adults were not so hungry after our Mexican feast, but the kids found room for dessert. They definitely had a separate dessert stomach…..

Thursday 13 July – Turtles, turtles and more turtles….

Our 5th day in Rarotonga was going to be an amazing one, it was turtle snorkel day! We’d booked a turtle snorkeling tour in the Avaavaroa Passage for Soren, Astrid and myself. It was also our last day in our first Airbnb, before we moved over to the other side of the island to our next house.

In our current holiday villa the gardening staff had been picking the garden passionfruit for the kids and Zinnia was a fan of them for breakfast.

The turtle and ray snorkel….

Rarotonga is known for it’s abundance of turtles. We’d already come across turtles in our snorkels in the Muri lagoon. Anto and Astrid had also see a turtle on their dive. However, I was keen to get some more turtle time (I’d so far not seen them out snorkelling) and Soren and Astrid decided that they would spend some of their pocket money on joining me on a turtle tour. At first Soren wasn’t sure if he was willing to part with ‘that much pocket money’, $89 NZD, but later declared it ‘the best pocket money he’d ever spent’. Astrid was already burning through her pocket money with her dives so was happy to burn a bit more. While Zinnia was technically able to also do the turtle tour, we thought she would possibly struggle a bit in the strong currents and get less out of it, a decision that was a good one as many adults had a difficult time.

Rarotonga offers many turtle tour companies but we booked with Snorkel Cook Islands. They offer turtle snorkels at a couple of different times of the day depending on the current and tides.

Our booking was for 10am, so Anto dropped Astrid, Soren and myself down to the meeting point, which was not far from our accommodation. Anto and Zinnia then headed back to our villa to finish the pack up as we were moving to a new house that afternoon, on the other side of the island.

While we had been lucky enough to see turtles just swimming in Muri lagoon and at the dive site, there are several spots that are known to have a lot of turtles. Unfortunately these tend to be the few places on the island you are recommended not to swim. The majority of Rarotonga is surrounded by shallow lagoon but there are a few deep passages with strong currents where swimming is dangerous and many drownings occur. These spots are all well sign-posted on beaches, and clearly marked on maps.

Avaavaroa Passage is one of these spots and home to many of Rarotonga’s turtles. The passage is also full of coral, large fish and rays. Several turtle tours operate in the passage. While you can swim here without a tour, it would not be recommended. Virtually all the turtle tour companies offer guaranteed turtle sightings or your money back. When you see how many turtles are out in the passage you can see why they would rarely have to give anyone their money back.

Soren, Astrid and I were ready and raring to go. It’s hard to believe that beautiful calm water behind us is considered dangerous, but once you get out into the current it was obvious why people drown here.

As we had brought all our own snorkel gear with us we had time to kill while the other tour participants got given their gear. We then had a safety briefing and the instructors went over how to properly use masks and fins and how to snorkel. While we were fairly experienced snorkelers there was a range of experience within the group.

Once the briefings were done, everyone headed down to the edge of the lagoon and you had to gear up and do a shallow water snorkel test – swimming approximately 20m with a mask and fins in 1m deep water. A few people did have trouble, which let the staff know who they had to keep an eye on, but no problems for us, so we were ready to go.

Everyone had to snorkel as a group, with the current, out to the start of the trench. For those who weren’t confident snorkelers, there were snorkel guides at the front and back of the group and guides in kayaks who paddled beside the group. The kids were a little frustrated that they couldn’t roam like we normally do, but there was a very specific path we needed to follow to get to the start of the trench and keep with the current. As we were fairly strong swimmers we cruised at the front of the group so got to see plenty of fish on the way.

I was lugging the camera and hoping the housing was going to cooperate today for those turtle shots. The camera housing is weighted so it doesn’t float and when you aren’t in the water, and it’s very heavy and rather cumbersome, especially in such a big group.

After a fairly lengthy snorkel out to the passage there was a shallow bank and pontoon area for everyone to wait. We were right on the edge of the 25m deep trench where the turtles feed and rest. The water is only waist deep on the edges and their are guides stationed in various locations. The current through the passage is very strong so you are instructed which direction to snorkel in and which points you cannot pass.

For those who weren’t keen on being in deep water with strong current, you could stay in the shallow area and have turtles swim up near you. We were definitely keen to head out and see as many turtles as we could and both the kids are strong swimmers so we were happy to head off to find some turtles.

Luckily the guides quickly figured out we knew what we were doing and left us to it, as long as we did not venture outside the marked area. They were also great at pointing out spots where the turtles were moving through, and give us information on the individual turtles. Most of them were identifiable and had names!

We immediately were swimming with some very large turtles. As a bonus the camera was cooperating and I was fairly sure I was going to get some excellent turtle pics. With a lot of people excited to be near turtles, it was a bit hectic. After about 5 minutes people calmed down a little are realised there were a lot of turtles and you all didn’t have to be right over the same one.

The three of us cruised around and found our own spots to observe these magical creatures. The turtles are very used to people and were coming up very close. You were not allowed to touch them but they were absolutely within touching distance. Equally we found plenty just hanging out on rocks below us, not fussed by the crowds of people circling them.

Despite the strong current in the passage we were able to swim around following turtles. There were quite a few groups out in the passage on various tours, so a lot of people. There was one particular small group tour that were wanting people out of the way of their clients (so they could take photos of them with the turtles), who were a bit rude. We decided to just go find our own turtles to hang with. There were plenty around….

The guides from our tour were excellent. Telling us a bit about each turtle, and their habits.

When some rays were spotted (deep in the passage) they let us know and we got another chance to swim with rays. They were quite deep so hard to get good shots of but fun to swim above. The current through the passage brings lots of nutrients and food, which is why there is an abundance of turtles, rays and large fish.

Soren and Astrid had a great time swimming down with the rays, between turtle cruises.

This turtle is known as Cleopatra is she is 80 years old and weighs in at over 300kg. She was a favourite of the guides and was not at all fussed at us observing her!

Astrid and Soren were having a wonderful time snorkeling with the turtles and were able to easily dive down to get up nice and close. As long as you didn’t touch the turtles it was fine to dive down with them. They were so used to people that they generally just looked at us with curiosity and would occasionally swim with us for fun.

As the turtles hung out on the rocks and coral, fish would come up to clean them. The turtles seemed to enjoy this experience.

When the light was directly overhead the colours in the turtles shells and their skin were amazing.

All three of us were enjoy the magic of swimming along with these beautiful creatures. Of course the kids really wanted a shot of them swimming with turtles. Easier said than done when you have a fixed focal length lens and limited room to move between other snorkelers, but I gave it a good shot and regardless it was so much fun swimming along with them.

Astrid and Soren had quite a long snorkel with this little turtle, who was more than happy to play with us away from the crowds.

The patterns on the turtles are really very pretty and were were lucky to be able to just cruise over the top of them to see them so closely.

We ended up with over an hour out snorkeling with the turtles and rays. It was absolutely magical. Despite there being quite a large number of people around we saw plenty of turtles and had more than enough time to really enjoy them. The guides were wonderful and even those people who were weak swimmers got to see plenty of turtles from the shallower trench edge and the pontoons. I was however glad we didn’t take Zinnia, at 4 years old she would have been fine in the shallower area but wouldn’t have enjoyed the swim out and the much more difficult walk back in.

As we gathered back near the pontoon it was time to move back to shore. This now required everyone to walk against the current, along the edge of the trench. The guides with kayaks collected all our snorkel gear, which made the trek back significantly easier. The walk back was through water varying from knee to mid-chest on me. The current was very strong and Astrid was getting through OK by following other adults but Soren, being so light, struggled at times so often had to kick along next to me while I dragged him and also kept the camera floating along. The swim out with the current had been much more pleasant!

Back on shore and we were all smiles! What an experience and one I’d definitely recommend to anyone visiting Rarotonga.

After the tour they provide some tropical fruit and drinking coconuts. Unfortunately the delivery of drinking coconuts from the market that morning hadn’t yet made it. All the kids had been hanging out for drinking coconuts all holiday but a small amount eventually arrived so Astrid and Soren were happy.

While we’d been having an amazing morning snorkeling with turtles, Anto and Zinnia had been working hard relocating all our stuff to our new accommodation which was not far from the the airport in the Avarua district. They arrived to pick us up at around 12.30pm, having also been to the supermarket and refilled our water supply. Zinnia was full of excitement at our new huge house. Huge it was!

Afternoon snorkeling at Black Rock

After the three of us turtle snorkelers had finally calmed down from our amazing morning we were brought back to earth, well and truly, by some necessary unpacking at the new house. As Anto and Zinnia hadn’t yet been in the water that day, we all voted to head out for a swim and snorkel after lunch.

One of the reasons we’d decided to stay in different accommodation throughout our trip, was easier access to different snorkel sites. One of the best snorkel sites near our second house was Black Rock, so we loaded up the car and drove the couple of kilometres down to the parking area, ready to explore a new beach.

While Zinnia wasn’t initally keen on not getting to do the turtle snorkel, Anto had placated her with an icecream while they were out doing the moving and shopping. She was now happy to explore a new beach and find new fish and starfish friends.

This beach definitely had a lot more people than our previous snorkel sites. A lot of locals also swim and snorkel here and there are again a few resorts nearby. The beach is also literally off the end of the runway of the International airport, so you get the excitement of watching planes taking off and flying overhead at low altitude. It is certainly entertaining. The resulting waves from the planes also provided some amusement.

Again the lagoon was relatively shallow in this spot, making for easy snorkeling, although we did have to venture further off the beach to get to the better coral and fish. There was minimal current so it was again easy snorkeling.

After a big morning of turtles, the kids were mostly happy to play on the beach and swim around in the lagoon while Anto and I took it in turns to head right out onto the reef.

The water was again a beautiful temperature, so we were all happy laying around watching the planes fly over us. Zinnia also enjoyed the Anto ‘snorkel express’ and got piggy backed around.

Soren decided to make sand angels between the kids chasing around the beach dogs and beach roosters. Yes, you could swim to the sounds of constant ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’. It was quite the experience!

….. and yet more swimming

Once we were done with the beach and snorkeling for the afternoon we headed back to the house for to wash off the sand in our pool. This pool was much larger than the one at our first place and although ‘shared’ between a few villas, we never had anyone else in it with us.

The water in this pool was warmer than our last house and more to the liking of the adults. As usual the kids didn’t care about water temperature and were enjoying the tropical later afternoon sunshine.

Island beach sunsets…..

After ridding ourselves of sand, the plan for dinner was to head to the nearby (a few kilometres away) popular food van ‘Falafel Shack’, to pick up some dinner. As we headed out the sun was starting set and was making for beautiful views.

This spot is not far from the airport, but you could have been miles from anywhere….

Once we got to the Falafel Shack the kids headed off to the beach while we placed our order. Unfortunately, it’s very popular and they freshly make the food so we had quite the wait. A beach sunset and plenty of sand, and hibiscus flowers, kept the kids entertained, although our tummies were definitely rumbling after all that swimming and snorkeling!

It was a perfect night and a beautiful spot. The kids stole my camera off me to take beach selfies in between climbing coconut trees and making sand castles…..

We’d been planning on eating our takeaway on the beach, but by the time our food was ready it was well and truly dark. So, we headed back to the house for some delicious food and some of the local ginger beer and regular beer (approved by Anto).

As is tradition on our holidays, the night was finished off with a few games of cards. The kids might have been worn out from sunshine and snorkeling but they still tried to muster up enough energy to beat us at UNO and Gin Rummy.

Up next……

In the next instalment of our Rarotonga adventures, we checked out the local markets, checked out new snorkel spots and enjoyed some beautiful beaches and island weather.

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