The calm of Aitutaki lagoon, three ways
Onboard Richard Story’s Marguerite Cruise, Aitutaki. Photo / Jonathan Milne
The world famous Aitutaki lagoon has never been so calm and unfazed as this year. As we cross the sand bar in front of where we are staying at O’otu Villa, the only sign of human life we ââcan see is a trickle of smoke rising from a yard waste fire, on the main part of the island.
It is twilight. There is no one else on the hot lagoon. No cars or motorcycles traveling on the coastal roads. A frigate hovers above us.
Even with the border with New Zealand open, it will take a long time for tourists to return to the Cook Islands in droves. There are no Americans, no Europeans, no Australians – just a few New Zealanders with a deep connection to the islands where the ancestors of the early Maori embarked in their vaka.
There will never be a better time to visit.
Sail in silence above the turtles
When he lived in Auckland, Ted Tavai dreamed of sailing. He saw the wind on the water. He saw the yachts slip by on the choppy waves. But it was too expensive – they call it a rich man’s sport. And it was too cold.
Then, in 2009, Ted and Shelley Tavai moved to the village of Nikaupara on Aitutaki. âComing here was a dream come true. Looking at this lagoon, you wanted to be there!
He pledged to help out at the weekend sailing club. Shelley is a teacher, and as it turns out, Ted is a bit natural around kids too.
“It’s really my passion, seeing the big smiles, especially those who have never sailed before,” he said. “Their whole face, their whole way changes.”
Aitutaki Sailing Club, to be clear, is made up of three rusty, padlocked containers resting on an O’otu sand spit, coconut palms and ironwood trees overhead, the pockmarked sand of crab burrows that pose an ankle twisting threat to young barefoot sailors carrying their Optimists, Lasers and Tazs all the way to the lagoon.
Now Ted takes tourists and locals alike on new 17ft Hobie Getaway Poly Hull Catamarans, the latest and greatest on the water, plunging and sprinting through the Blue Lagoon, weaving through the heads of coral on the waters he knows so well. good.
My own boys learned to sail Optimists with the Rarotonga Sailing Club; they were delighted to see the Motu E’e where their friends had camped for a sailing regatta the previous year.
But times have been tough for Captain Ted, with the departure of tourists. With more downtime, he does what others do on Aitutaki: go out on the plantation, repair their house, go spearfishing …
New cruise ship named after revolutionary politician
The newest excursion boat on Aitutaki Lagoon is solid and beautiful. Her owner, marine scientist Richard Story, named the boat in honor of her mother, Marguerite Story.
She was one of the first women to serve in the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly and the first female Speaker of Parliament. She was the sister of the independent country’s first prime minister, Sir Albert Henry, although she was sometimes known to kick her brother out of Parliament for disorderly behavior.
Richard recalls, “She also reminded him that even though the Speaker of the House is her sister, that doesn’t mean there would be favoritism.”
Sometimes she was so firm with him that Richard thought they would no longer be on good terms – but outside of Parliament they were close as family. “For me the boat with its strong agility allure suits my mother’s position in her life as a very strong and vocal person.”
Marguerite Story’s dream was for her children to return to her homeland, Aitutaki, and start their own business – and help protect the environment. She would have been proud of Richard; he is the marine scientist at Aitutaki and heads the Center for Marine Research.
On our visit, the large reservoirs in the center are filled with glistening pa’ua (giant clams), shining blue and green and gold and silver. My three young sons look at them, fascinated.
This is Richard’s daily job. Taking visitors to the Marguerite is only a side activity – but one to which it brings unique insight.
A few days after visiting him at the Center, he helps us aboard the Marguerite and we head gently towards the lagoon. If anyone knows where best to see turtles, or how to treat them with respect, it’s Story. The Marguerite is new; she arrived in Aitutaki in January, just before the border closed. It only took a handful of tourists on sea fishing trips or lagoon cruises.
Owned by Richard, his daughter Nora Raita and her husband, Marguerite Cruises focus on marine protection.
On One Foot Island, made famous by countless tourist photos, the beach is almost deserted. The giant trevally turn curiously as we dive into the lagoon.
“When the guests see the turtles, the giant trevally and the giant clams, their eyes light up, big smiles on their faces, they cannot believe how big the trevally and the clams are, or that they can. see a green turtle swimming in their natural environment, “says RaÃ¯ta.
This year, an academic study co-authored by Richard Story was published in international media. The hard-hitting study shows that the common practice of sprinkling bread in water to entice reef fish may or may not satisfy tourists, but it is certainly harmful to small herbivorous fish. This shows that Story’s concern for the environment is uncompromising.
âSeeing the smiles, curiosity and wonder of our customers is what makes our day, and knowing that we are doing our part to educate our customers about Aitutaki’s marine life and the importance of protecting it for the generation. future. “
The Calmness of Mike Lee from Aitutaki: Learning to Kitesurf on the Lagoon
“Let go of the barâ¦ just let go of the barâ¦”
Standing knee-deep on a sandbar far out in the Aitutaki Lagoon, there is an eerie calm in Mike Lee’s voice. I regain control of the kite and guide it again to the sky; at 12 o’clock above me, the sun is in my eyes. I gently put one foot on the board, then the other, and I step forward and – no, no, no, the kite goes back down.
“Let go of the barâ¦”
And crash, I dropped the big yellow kite in the water. Still.
For 18 years Mike Lee was a cook. He made seven-week trips on factory trawlers, cooking for the crews. Or he ran restaurants, in Picton and Napier, New Zealand. Behind the collar, with 30 dinner orders lined up, he was under stress. “That’s when I really felt it. It’s gratifying. I liked the fast pace. I didn’t throw things. I would probably swear a bit.”
Then, 20 years ago, his mother, Tereapii, passed away. She was from the Aitutaki village of Nikaupara; she and her father, Robin, had built a house there. They had planned to retire there, but she never got the chance.
So after 30 years of coming to Aitutaki for vacation, Mike Lee finally came home to live. A few friends visited him with their kite boards and he got hooked. They taught him the basics, he obtained his instructor’s license and, for a dozen years, he has been teaching kitesurfing to tourists.
It was difficult at first, but in the last four or five years, business has picked up. He used to take tourists kitesurfing off Honeymoon Island. They were stopping for a barbecue lunch and salads.
He has seen it all. There was the experienced kiteboarder who decided to jump his board over the reef – but he couldn’t push back the current. âYou wouldn’t want to land on the reef, not this reef, it’s really sharp,â Lee recalls. “He was about 20 yards from the reef, and we had to go get him.”
He hired four other instructors. He bought a four-person boat, then an eight-person boat, then a 16-person boat. He owns about thirty kites. Always, he paid cash up front – and it was lucky, because in March 2020 everything stopped. Lee’s only clients since then have been locals.
How does he manage to maintain such Zen calm? “I think it’s just my mom, really. And it’s a Cook Islands thing. My mom and all my uncles and aunts are really placid, I guess it’s in the family tree.”
Now 51, he lives with his 10-year-old son, Brandon. Yes, Brandon Lee, like the movie star son of another Zen master, Bruce Lee.
âBrandon doesn’t do martial arts,â laughs Mike Lee. “He loves it here, he catches freshwater shrimp now. He couldn’t do that in Auckland.”
Brandon’s dad, meanwhile, has branched out. It’s the buzzword, but it has been doing it for years. Lee went from boarding to foiling, soaring one meter above the water. âThe lagoon is the perfect place to do it because you are at the top, and you look down and you see all the long coral heads, the turtles, the eagle rays, the fish, the color – and you are silent. , you don’t scare them.
“It’s really something to see. It takes a lot to impress me, but it really touches me.”
For now, however, he has to take care of me. The yellow kite jumps and dives. Mike Lee stands a yard or two behind me as I tackle the cables and the board under my feet.
“Let go of the barâ¦”
And boom! He touched the water again. The rope pings and loosens in a way that it hadn’t been in my previous six hours of class. I am looking along the line and there is a big tear in the middle of the kite.
We silently wind the ropes. The breeze ripples over the lagoon.
Surely having an expensive kite torn in half by a student who cannot listen to instructions – surely that must disturb his calm?
âHaving a rip kite is really nothing,â he said calmly. “I think it could be worse, I could be back in the kitchen in New Zealand. I think there is nowhere else that I would rather be than here.”