The reefs on Aitutaki and Rarotonga have been so decimated by overuse that Rarotonga now has raui (protected) areas in parts of the lagoon where fishing and harvesting are forbidden. After only five years the life in these areas has begun to return as the coral regenerates and the lagoon’s ecosystem restores itself. And these are the spots to snorkel in. They should be great in another ten years.
One raui area near the motus has shallow water until the highest tide and plenty of small reef fish. Another one farther down has flat-topped bommies (huge heads of boulder and other coral flattened by exposure to the air at low tide). Thousands of fish hover around these natural apartment buildings in the open sandy lagoon landscape, but when the tide is rushing in through the nearby opening in the reef the rip can be dangerous. In fact, when the tide is rising, the current in several places picks up to ferocious levels. Locals know enough not to go in the water at these times, but if you’ve never been on this beach before you can get into trouble. Always keep an eye on children playing in the lagoon.
The activity my kids enjoyed most was collecting sea cucumbers – living creatures that live on the lagoon floor and look like animal droppings (in fact, one variety is called the donkey dung sea cucumber). They arranged a group of them in a little underwater stable, named them all, and toyed with the idea of contests but gave up that idea when they noticed that the cukes hardly moved.
For millions of years, the sea cucumber’s response to attack has been to squirt some of its own intestines into the water. The predator eats the intestines and leaves the rest of the animal alone. So, sea cukes (called rori in the Cooks) have the ability to heal tears in their own intestines quickly. The local people use this to their advantage by jamming a screwdriver or knife into the animals, squeezing out reams of intestine and tossing the animals back into the lagoon to regenerate. Sometimes this is done for a snack, the intestines eaten raw on the spot. But sometimes, the guts (which look like very fine yellow-white al dente vermicelli) are cooked in butter and spices. If you see "spaghetti" listed on a menu in a restaurant, it’s more than likely this kind of spaghetti. In fact, sea cukes were actively harvested for decades throughout the Pacific (called beche de mer) to provide just this delicacy.
The most interesting thing in the lagoon for me was the foot long lizardfish I watched lunge out from its hideout half buried in the sand at a school of yellow tangs. If I’d had a video camera with me, I’d have sent in the film to the PBS nature film folks. Kind of a way to complete the circle.