During our trip to the Cook Islands we were introduced to Morinda citrifolia, the noni tree. It bears about 50 flowers and creates a very unique looking fruit of a cream color. If your unsure of whether the plant your looking at is a noni, just take a nice whiff of the fruit. It is known for its repulsive cheesy smell. Although it is called the noni tree, it is a true shrub, ranging from 15-30 feet tall. The leaves are a dark green glossy color with vibrant veins.
Noni tree fruit.
This plant is known for it’s many medicinal purposes such as; treating bowel disorders, arthritis, allergies, healing burns, stings and most significantly Ciguatera fish poisoning. These are just a few of the many examples that were given regarding the healing powers of this incredible plant.
Isn’t it funny how before one takes off to a place unknown they picture it in a differently than it may actually be? And one may visualize and be expecting things that may not even be present when you finally see the environment itself?
When I arrived in Aitutaki my initial thought was that it felt alright. It felt like home. I wasn’t expecting these feelings to exist within me on the first day. I felt welcomed and I felt excited. I felt relatively established and proud to be there doing something good for the benefit of good people and to be doing so based on their terms and not ours. I learned a few of the things that are culturally significant and may even be lessons to the wider world itself. In Aitutaki, Sundays are “off” for religious purposes, families pass down their land to other family members so that it is never lost to the lineage, people don’t have huge houses or necessarily a personal bedroom (as far as I saw). Most importantly, the people themselves were very connected, generous, loving and patient. Regarding the marine life of the Cooks, I don’t think I’ll ever quite picture the lagoons the same as I sunk at least 4 feet deep into muck of the back lagoon (between the two lobes of the island) too many times to count, but I will remember the beautiful things such as the way the majority of the reefs flickered against the sun and the water that flashed aqua blue. The cascading abundance of fish species never let me down although many that I saw such as parrotfishes, the moray eels, snappers and giant trevally were know to have ciguatera poisoning. A sad but honest truth, one that I am hoping will improve as our research evolves.
What I may miss most is the culture and having the opportunity to explore it alongside my fellow classmates and island residents alike. I will miss how the people of Aitutaki interacted with their surrounding environment and the learning experience it brought to the table for us all. Although I was pleased to return home, the Cook Islands will always have a special place in my heart.
A couple days ago we visited the Marine Research Center and looked at the clam hatchery. Charlie Waters, a specialist regarding clams, gave us a thorough explanation about the reasons for low spawning success and the purpose of his research. Charlie explained that low reproduction was due to the distance between individuals. Each species of clam are too far away from each other to spawn, those species include; genera tridacnidae maxima, tridacnidae gigas, tridacnidae derasa and the genera hippopus.
In the 20th century, many areas in the Cook Islands relied on clams as a food source, and therefore many clams were removed from the population overtime causing a decrease in the abundance of clams. Clams are significant to the reefs as they are coral reef filter feeders and food for the octopus as well as other marine life. When they are spread to thin, the cannot reproduce. This could easily offset the balance of marine environments.
With the current ciguatera research in place my assumption is that with the lack of clams, increase in tourism, the previous banana exportation, and chemical runoff the reefs and lagoons are less viable to fighting off the neurotoxin. It may also be that the potentially ciguatoxic coral is spread when large storms come through, causing unsettled ocean water and debris.
Ciguatera has been an emerging problem within the last four or five years on Rarotonga and a few other nearby islands, such as Aitutaki. Although many people rely on reef fish populations as a food source, the sunset wrasse is untouched as it is not a public interest.
These fish feed mainly on small invertebrates. Small snails and brittle stars are their favorite prey. Sunset wrasse are characterized as having a pink-striped head with green bands and a blue and green forebody. Their pharyngeal jaw allows them to extend their mouth widely and grind up their dinner, which sometimes could be up to half their size. They usually are present in small groups near seaward reefs and coral patches. They can be seen down to 30 meters. Incredible in many ways and my favorite fish so far!
My first couple days in Rarotonga was similar to what I had expected – beautiful people, extraordinary marine life and white sand beaches. Our home was in a missionary boarding house, directly across the from beach. I made a few friends with the local dogs and pigs.
Above: backyard of the missionary in Rarotonga.
So forth during this trip we have spent a short period of time snorkeling to adjust to our on-hand equipment and observe our candidates for the next week and a half. As we snorkeled we saw many parrot fish, moorish idol, sea cucumbers, ghost crabs, eels and much more.
To top it off we had the chance to experience the 50th Independence Celebration where the community engaged in either the dancing, music or speculation thereof. The costumes of the dancers were intricately made: most woman wore belly shirts and skirts while men were had a bit less coverage, as culturally accepted during dance and musical celebrations. I was amazed by the talent and short period of time they had to practice (approximately a month). Each individual island and village was competing against the other, choosing a dance to perform to the viewers, although it felt more so that each island was in it together sharing the excitement and energy of the celebration.
Aitutaki has been an adventure of it’s own. Most of our equipment didn’t make it on the plane, although we are hoping to receive it tomorrow morning, the 30th. No worries. Luckily, an ok amount of our work can be done without all the materials we brought such as the S-BRASS monitoring. As of this morning, being on Aitutaki has presented us with much more time to explore these lagoons and their aquatic species as well. Cheers to the next 11 days here on the island.
I have to say that I’ve never been much of a traveler but always aspired to be – so cheers to my first journey. I anticipate that there will be many sleepless nights as I do my best to adjust to a lot of exciting changes, but I also anticipate that I will be learning more about values and norms of the people, alongside significant information regarding ciguatera and the lagoons/reefs biota, ways of agriculture and societal organization than I ever thought I could. I cannot emphasize how important I think it is to understand other peoples culture. Coming from a small town in Missoula, Montana you don’t see much culture. The more I’ve gotten to see the significance of it living here in Southern California and the outstanding ability it has to explain the way people think and behave, the more I want to know.
The fact that there has been little previous research makes this opportunity even more special. The marine life is probably absolutely spectacular. I’m hoping that my love for culture and my interest in exploring the cause of ciguatera might be useful for our team. I can’t wait to get my feet in the dirt! Thank you so much for lending me this opportunity, Sean and Clare! How cool is this little guy?
The first occurrence of Europeans on the Cook Islands was in 1595 on Pukapuka, one of the Northern Islands, then again in 1606 and thereafter. Although the most seemingly significant European visit was by Captain Cook in 1773, hence how the islands got their name – Cook Islands. Before his appearance the islands were generally called Manihiki Islands: he endowed his name within the southern islands. Throughout time missionaries brought with them many diseases although the culture and traditions were less influenced and less removed, according to current research, than many other places throughout history. The objective was self-sufficiency for the island but this goal had never been fully accomplished due to a number of reasons (although maybe from the islanders original perspective they found themselves to be self-sufficient?) Nowadays, the islanders govern internal affairs, but defense and foreign policy are in New Zealand’s hands. Interesting how throughout time things change so deeply! Check the map!
The Maori people generally greet others with nose touching, and often small gift giving is a way of showing appreciation for ones hospitality when entering another’s home.