Cook Islands: exploring the turquoise waters of Aitutaki lagoon

Aitutaki in the Cook Islands has got the looks: white sand, turquoise ocean and swaying palms — yet it's not just a pretty face.

By David Whitley
Published 9 Oct 2017, 12:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 11:55 BST

Tapuaetai or One Foot Island.

Photograph by Getty Images

There's quite a commotion by the boat. Yelps and shrieks come from the water as if a shark or crocodile has just sidled up. It turns out to be something less terrifying, though — just three or four giant trevallies, zipping around and popping up unexpectedly.

They're occasionally bumping into the snorkelers, but more often just emerging where they're not expected. They're big beasts, too, and should probably be extremely wary of anyone with a fishing rod. Lucky for them the skipper is over at the barbecue, cooking up tuna he caught earlier this morning.

One Foot Island is the final destination on a flit across Aitutaki's lagoon, and it does a tremendous job of fulfilling all the necessary Pacific Island cliches. Coconut palms do the lazy swaying thing, ready to drop their fruit on anyone foolish enough to sit underneath. The sand is a powdery white, and just soft enough to make for a satisfying footprint. An idle wander around the island throws up scuttling hermit crabs, and, on the horizon, waves crashing into the reef surrounding the lagoon.

Beyond that reef, the water gets very deep very quickly. But within its protective embrace, everything is calm, glassy and outrageously good looking.

There's no way of talking about Aitutaki's lagoon without descending into the realms of starstruck fanboyism. No wonder pictures of it are used on promotional imagery of the Cook Islands, and it's hardly a surprise that people will shell out for the internal flight from the main island, Rarotonga, to this isolated Pacific speck to see it in person.

Those getting on the Bishop's Cruises boat at the start of the day are giddily excited, and with good reason, especially when the sun comes out and casts its rays over the vast vision of teals and turquoises. This view reaches its apogee at One Foot Island, aided a great deal by the sandbar that stretches out from it. It only takes a little paddle to get out there, and once on it, the full desert island cliche is complete. It's 360-degree views of lagoon, islets and sheer, splendid isolation.

A channel passes between One Foot Island and the islet next to it. The skipper's advice is to walk up the beach, then ride the current to float back down. And to take a snorkel.

It's good advice, as it's not long before schools of distinctive silvery fish with a yellow stripe down the middle zigzag past. Then, on the sandy bottom, are a couple of giant clams, their mouths a vivid velvet-esque blue and black coat. Take a breath, dive down and wag a finger in their general direction, and they'll coyly close up. Don't get too close, though — there are sea urchins snuggled underneath the rocks, and an encounter with one of their spines is going to seriously hurt.

An angelfish, with the black dot on its back designed to trick predators into thinking it's an eye, glides past. It's followed by something that looks like it has donned leopard print. Every new character increases the eagerness to be thoroughly nosy.

One Foot Island may be the one where you can get your passport stamped (the customs officers look suspiciously like the boat crew), but other islets have a more illustrious history. Akaiami, for example, was once the refuelling stop for Trans Empire Airlines planes heading to Tahiti. That led to a rather illustrious clientele — including Marlon Brando and Cary Grant — stopping off for a swim for a few hours.

It's rather trickier to spot the runway, however. And that's because the lagoon was the runway, and the planes were flying boats. The service ran between 1951 and 1960 before technological advances made the flights uneconomical. Now, the visitors are scuttling crabs and gleeful swimmers, the latter taking quite some herding to get out of the water and back on the boat.

Once the cruise is over, night falls quickly. Aitutaki, with a population of around 2,000 laid-back souls, is no party island. But when the sun rises the next day, it's just a short stagger from bungalow to beach. One Foot Island may be the target, but in truth, Aitutaki is surrounded by beaches of near-identical quality. And while everyone else gets an extra hour's sleep, that lagoon calls. Mask down, snorkel in, and a wade out to swimming depth, and suddenly it becomes your own perfect, private swimming pool. Well, apart from those sneaky fish.


Air New Zealand flies from Heathrow to Rarotonga via Los Angeles from £1,307 per person. From there, Air Rarotonga flies to Aitutaki from around NZ$181 (£100). Two-person bungalows at Tamanu Beach Club start at NZ$495 (£270) a night, B&B. The full-day lagoon cruise with Bishop's Cruises costs NZ$95 (£52).

Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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