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Cook Islands Travel Guide

Suwarrow Atoll Map


In 1814 the Russian explorer Mikhail Lazarev discovered an uninhabited atoll, which he named for his ship, the Suvarov. A mysterious box containing US$15,000 was dug up in 1855, probably left by the crew of a wrecked Spanish galleon in 1742. Later an additional US$2,400 was found. Early in the 20th century, Lever Brothers unsuccessfully attempted to introduce to the lagoon gold-lipped pearl oysters from Australia's Torres Straits. In the 1920s and 1930s A. B. Donald Ltd. ran Suwarrow as a copra estate, until the island became infested with termites and the export of copra was prohibited. During World War II New Zealand coastwatchers were stationed here--the few decrepit buildings on Anchorage Island date from that time.

At various times from 1952 onward, New Zealander Tom Neale lived alone on Suwarrow and wrote a book about his experiences titled, not surprisingly, An Island to Oneself. Tom never found the buried treasure he was searching for on Suwarrow, and in 1977 he died of cancer on Rarotonga. Today coconut-watchers serve on Suwarrow to ensure that none of the termite-infested nuts are removed. The numerous rats are not afraid of humans. Officially Suwarrow is a National Park, and the caretakers live in Tom Neale's house. A government meteorologist may also be present, and pearl divers from Manihiki and Penrhyn visit occasionally.

Yachts often call on their way from Rarotonga or Bora Bora to Samoa. The wide, easy lagoon entrance is just east of Anchorage Island on the northeast side of the atoll and a 40-meter-long coral rock jetty points to the deep anchorage. There's good holding, but in stormy weather the lagoon waters can become very rough. Though Suwarrow is not an official port of entry, yachts often stop without clearing in at Rarotonga or Aitutaki. Passports must be taken to the caretakers in Tom's house, who also accept outgoing mail (yachties often volunteer to carry mail to/from Rarotonga). The table and chairs outside the caretaker family's home provide welcome neutral ground for whiling away the time.

Of the 25 motu, only five are sizable. The snorkeling in the lagoon is fantastic, with lots of shark action--they won't usually bother you unless you're spearfishing. Scuba diving is not allowed. In the past, hurricanes have washed four-meter waves across the atoll and during one storm in 1942 those present survived by tying themselves to a large tamanu tree (see The Island of Desire, by Robert Dean Frisbie). Thousands of seabirds, turtles, and coconut crabs nest on this historically strange and still mysterious island.

Pacific Expeditions operates trips from Rarotonga to Suwarrow Palmerston, Nassau, and Pukapuka aboard a 18-meter sailing vessel two or three times a year.