Years down the track when I’m old and gray I would kick myself if I didn’t say anything about what is happening here in Rarotonga in regards to the turtles and the Ava’avaroa passage.
The Ava’avaroa passage is the largest passage through the reef in Rarotonga and is home to an amazing array of sea life. I have been lucky enough to work in, and take images of the incredible array of marine life that inhabit this space. I love it and it has now become one of my favorite places in the world. I am so looking forward to showing my kids because it is truly beautiful.
Obviously the turtles and the eagle rays love it too. You can swim with them and see them in their natural habitat, and this is what is drawing crowds of people a day to this one small passage.
It’s not a large area and competition is fierce between the operators for space to give their clients the “Best Experience” so that they can leave a glowing review on social media. Tourists come and go so I thought I would share a part of the bigger picture (or at least my observations from the past couple of months).
The passage isn’t very big and sometimes when I’m sitting out there it feels like the Auckland harbour bridge with a constant stream of visitors flowing in and out, the majority of them glowing with turtle fever.
As a photographer, I’ve taken pictures of lots of smiling happy people interacting with the marine life and I can see the elation of their experience and I totally get it. Its pretty magical.
However, there’s also the photos of the totally destroyed coral beds that get stomped on for access, touching of the turtles, rubbish and not to mention all the stuff that you can’t see like tons of sunscreen and pollutants introduced to the area.
I see the impact on the area and this is what makes me incredibly sad, even though I’m not a Cook Islander (and I worry that it might not be my place to comment). Though it’s not my treasure it still makes me really sad, so here’s my voice.
At the moment there are four operators working this passage and maybe more starting up. Everyone has their unique selling point and pushes their brand. Yes, they all operate in the same area and all see the same marine life.
There is also a loose understanding that no tours are to be run during the weekend, to give the turtles and the passage a rest. (with increasing tourist pressure. I see some operators are now booking trips on the weekends.
Also, there is meant to be an understanding that no more than 14pax for each group goes out, this is to keep the pressure off the turtles when they come up for air and prevent them being surrounded by people jostling for a photo or gopro footage. Sadly “turtling” is a big money maker and with tourist pressure I see this maximum number changing for some. (which puts more pressure on the whole area).
Another really interesting point is how the passage works in regards to currents and rips, for the adventurous who are thinking about having a go for themselves this next bit is worth paying attention to. In NZ, when the tide comes in it goes up the estuary or inlet or bay etc so the current is pushing in on the incoming tide. Then when the tide changes and is on the way out, the current pushes out. However, in the passages through the reef here, the only thing that changes is the speed and power of the current; it is always a one way trip out. This is due to the fact that the waves break over the reef, filling up the lagoon and then the water has to find a way back out again. This happens through the passages. So remember one way trip out. (That’s why if you have been here you will see all the danger signs on the beach by each passage).
So that’s why the turtle tours/trips are run around low tide, this is a safety issue that has been agreed to by most of the operators, and also good intel for tourists to know. Low is the safest time. and you also get to see more as there’s less water.
The kicker is at this stage there are no official laws or regulations in place, so it’s a free for all and is definitely not sustainable in the long term.
There are some amazing operators who have been calling for governmental intervention to protect this area and to provide better research, limiting operator numbers and putting a cap on the size of the groups that can be in the passage at any one time. This could take a long time unless it’s given a voice.
What can you do?
That’s a really easy answer, use your head, ask the right questions and make the best decisions when visiting.
Here’s a few questions to try out..
How long has the operator been in business? Safety record?
Are their activities based on good solid expert research and knowledge about turtle behaviour, habits, needs etc..
Do they contribute to any conservational initiatives that give back to the passage and the marine life?
What are their safety ratios in the water, do they have suitable qualified and experienced staff?
What size groups do they take out? Is there an educational component or is it a free for all?
How do they get in and out of the passage, do they impact on the coral?
It’s simple really, vote with your voice and choice, this will lift the awareness of the need for legislation and regulations towards a sustainable operation in this incredible area.