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Swimming with Manta Rays in Suwarrow

When we said where we were heading after French Polynesia, the reaction from the locals was “What? Where is that?”; so it felt we were really heading off the grid. 700 miles from Bora Bora and hundreds of miles from other land, the atoll of Suwarrow in the Northern Cook Islands is remote and isolated. A nature reserve whose only inhabitants are two park rangers, that live there for half the year, visited only by a few passing yachts. The rest of the year the island is left to the turtles, coconut crabs, boobies, sharks, manta rays and a whole host of reef fish. This sounded right up our street.

The stretch of ocean between Bora Bora and Suwarrow can harbour some pretty unsettled weather, so we had been keeping a keen eye on the forecast. There was a big swell running at 4m which was not forecast to die off any time soon, but at least it looked like a decent wind forecast would get us to Suwarrow before the next stormy weather came through. The 4m waves made for a very uncomfortable first couple of days at sea, as we rolled gunnel to gunnel and fought to brace ourselves and avoid getting thrown across the boat. Despite the discomfort we were thankful the waves were behind us and we could surf down them rather than climb up them.

We were well on target to arrive in 5 days until the wind died on us during the night of day 4, this meant we would be pushing it to get through the reef entrance in good daylight the following day. We therefore made the decision to slow down, spend an extra day at sea, but enter the pass in good light the following day. The light winds had allowed the sea to calm down, so instead of getting annoyed that we would not make it when planned, we made the most of it by stopping Florence mid-ocean and going for a refreshing swim, one at a time of course! The water clarity mid-pacific in a depth of around 4 kilometers is unbelievable. We spent the rest of the day appreciating the ocean view, reading our books and munching on popcorn. It felt a world away from the conditions at the start of the passage. By the end of the day we were still early so spent the night hove to (stopped) 15 miles clear of the island.

Once the sun had risen high enough to give us good visibility of the reefs, we made our way through the pass and into the lagoon at Suwarrow. The pass was a simple one with the reefs easily visible in the clear, flat water, allowing us to sail into the anchorage. Anchoring was not quite so straight forward as the relatively small anchorage already held 5 boats, and the remaining space was either too deep for us or littered with coral bommies. We bouyed our chain but were still unable to avoid getting it wrapped. The rangers, Harry and Katou came out to us as soon as we were anchored to run through the customs and immigration clearance. Several forms later (which they admitted just stay boxed on the island then binned) and $50 lighter we were free to explore. As free as you can be when living on a boat and dependent upon the weather that is. That stormy weather had finally caught up with us and the 25knot winds quickly built up a steep chop in both the lagoon and anchorage. To get around we usually row or sail our small dinghy. When it’s too windy to sail or row, we use the small 2.3hp outboard which makes for a very wet ride with the risk of flipping in the chop.

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The anchorage before the waves got up

 

We had heard there is a Manta Ray cleaning station in the lagoon and were determined to go and find the Rays. Bailing out the dinghy between turning into the larger waves, we made it to the recommended spot and jumped into the rough but crystal clear water. The wild dinghy ride and tough swim was worth it several times over when we spotted the first Manta Ray gliding towards us. This was the closest we had been to these graceful creatures, who seemed completely impervious to our presence. It was one of those spine-tingling magical moments that will stay with us forever. Our kind friends on ‘Silver Lining’ gave us a lift in their bigger dinghy so we could return to see the Mantas again more comfortably the following day. Here’s a short video from our time swimming with the Manta Rays:

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Suwarrow is often also known as “Tom Neale’s Island”, after the man who became so fascinated with Suwarrow he lived there alone for many years and wrote the book “An Island to Oneself”. His home still remains on the island, sitting alongside the rangers hut, together they make up the only buildings on the island.

The sense of community spirit within the cruising world is really accentuated out here in the middle of no-where. Everyone rallied around in the anchorage to offer help with problems on other boats, and when the weather allowed we regularly met up to enjoy beach games and pot luck dinners with the Rangers ashore.

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As the conditions during our stay worsened, the boats in the anchorage were all getting thrown around by the waves. There was no where else that we could move to for more shelter so we just had to grin and bear it. At least it was more sheltered here than out at sea. The waves were so bad that Florence was close to taking them over the bow and the boat next to us broke their chain snubber. We were very thankful of our investment in a Spade type anchor which is slightly bigger than needed for a yacht of Florence’s size and held without any problems.

Despite the weather, Suwarrow was still a great stop for us. As the weather for sailing on improved, the anchorage emptied and we headed for Samoa, leaving the Rangers to greet the next yachts on the horizon.

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