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.
It is our last night in Aitutaki before our plane takes off to Rarotonga and then back to LAX. Emotions are running high as almost everyone seemed to have cried during and/or after our final salute on the beach before coming to the airport. With the sun setting at the ocean’s horizon, our group stood in a circle and shared what we thought was the most interesting thing or what we were amazed by over these past two weeks followed by what we thought we would miss the most upon leaving. As some probably knew I would say, I said that one of my favorite things was the beach clean-ups that we did. Honestly, I was blown away by the amounts of trash that we picked up off of these beaches, and it saddens me to think that I cannot be there everyday to collect the present and future marine debris that washes up onto the shores of the Cooks Islands anymore… In regards to what I would miss, I said the island life. I am going to miss the quiet (along with the random and frequent rooster calls), the beautiful views that I could never get sick of seeing, the absolutely amazing people that we met out there, and the opportunity to do research in service of the community. This trip was life-changing; I built new friendships, strengthened previous relationships, learned a lot about data collection and recording, and I feel less naïve about cultures that differ from mine. I promised myself prior to our last tribute to CIinCI 2015 that I would not cry. I got through the whole thing without shedding a tear, gave hugs to those who I most likely will never see again, and patted myself on the back for not crying. However, once I get to Tasha, a lovely woman who (along with her husband Shane) took care of us daily throughout our trip, the tears start pouring down my face because the reality of leaving these wonderful people and inspiring place finally hit me. Their hospitality and genuine care is something I am always going to remember and yearn for in the future. Thank you guys again for everything; I’ll miss you all…
After dinner we headed to a spot near the airport with great visibility for a night time snorkel. I have never done that before and it was amazing!
The one and only Dr. John Lambrinos describes the intriguing and toxic seeds of the epic Barringtonia asiatica tree.
CSUCI, OSU, and PML visiting the first church in the Cook Islands.
Sunday is taken quite seriously on Aitutaki and every other island across the Cooks. No (or very little) work, the shops are closed, and you are expected to get on over to church.
Christianity is deeply rooted across the culture and day-to-day life here. With none of us having been to the Church of the Cook Islands, our faculty and students took this opportunity to check out what was reputed to be one of the most musical masses in the islands. And we were not disappointed!
The Church we attended was the first Christian church founded in Aitutaki and the oldest Christian community in the Cook Islands. This was also one of the first permanent, modern buildings here on Aitutaki, built in 1836 by Reverend John Williams, his lieutenants, and early flock. From its 1826 Cook Islands inception with the touching down of Fijian believers arriving on Aitutaki, Christianity spread to nearby islands. After establishing a Christian community on Aitu, Reverend Williams was finally given correct directions to find Rarotonga and begin his conversion efforts across Rarotonga. This paved the way for the conversion of the entire island chain.
Pastors over time
Today we all went to the island of Motukitiu on Aitutaki. This island was previously a pit stop for planes traveling the Pacific in 1950 to 1962. During this time planes could not travel far distances, so Tasmanian Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) built up this island for wealthy travelers to visit. This island has one side facing the lagoon and the other side facing the open ocean.
The team conducted a beach cleanup on the island starting on the lagoon side and then we made our way to the other side. In pairs, we took off with giant trash bags. Laura and I started following other groups down the beach and thought we would never fill up the bag or even have trash to pick up. The lagoon side of the island had no trash. I even had the thought that this beach is the cleanest beach I’ve ever been to. This thought quickly changed as we made our way across the island through the “jungle.” Slowly, trash started appearing until we made it to the other side of the island where there were large quantities of marine debris. There were tons of plastic bottles, flip-flops, and multiple pieces of rope, even a pair of eyeglasses. The trash bag became full fast. Then, we saw a 98-pound rope we began to dig up from the bushes. We then tugged and pulled until it was free and dragged the rope all the way to the path that led to the other side of the island and got help. Sean and John continued carrying the rope to the other side of the island where we met up with the rest of the group who made it all the way around the island. We then filled the boat with trash bags and ventured back to our camp where we sorted and weighed all the marine debris.
This beautiful, remote island was accumulating massive amounts of trash. This really had an impact on me because this is just one small island and there are so many larger coastlines around the world that are being affected by the same problem of marine debris taking over the beaches. This is a problem that is growing with the world population as humans resume to use non-reusable goods. This problem could easily be remedied if others begin to recognize the impact of non-reusable goods and made changes in their buying and consumption habits.
After a visit to the Boat Shed, we ended our introduction to Aitutaki with a snorkel at the (other end of runway) End of the Runway Beach (aka Base 1 Beach) as the sun was setting this evening. Just before we entered the water, we checked out the goings on the beach itself:
We also discussed the fine-grained sand so common across these Aitutaki beaches:
We finally arrived here in Aitutaki, with our small airplane landing adjacent to the classic landing point of TEAL’s Coral Route (albeit on a terrestrial plane and landing on a tarmac rather than the surface of the lagoon).
TEAL’s classic seaplane lands in Aitutaki Lagoon in the 1950’s. Image: TEAL Archives via Escape Magazine
We proceeded onto our hotel…
Reef Motel south of town on Aitutaki.
…where we got wind of the newest oil spill in Santa Barbara. This time proximate to Goleta Beach. As of this writing the slick has grown to 2 miles in width and appears to be associated with Platform Holly.
Sean is NOT happy after he heard about the oil spill back home in California.