In February and March this year, I joined Phil as research assistant. We flew to Atiu to undertake the first ever turtle survey and habitat assessment there, and spent our days riding a scooter around beautiful rain forest, surveying the Atiuan coastline. A large part of the Atiu coastline consists of fossilized coral cliffs, and many of the existing beaches were small and tucked away between the cliffs, so we would climb, hike or wade our way to whatever beach we could find in order to assess turtle nesting habitat availability and look for turtle tracks. While some potentially suitable nesting beaches exist, they were mostly devoid of any signs of turtle activity, and we only found a single turtle track. Unfortunately, we were no more successful in looking for turtles in the water surrounding the island. The island is surrounded by extremely sharp reefs of fossilized coral, and the only break in the reef offering a somewhat safe way to enter the water is a man-made little harbor. While entering the water and swimming out of the harbor is considered crazy by most people on Atiu, Phil and I were determined to investigate the presence of turtles in the local marine environment. We patiently waited for a somewhat calm day to enter the water, where we were greeted by a few sharks, but no turtles. Despite the fact that we were unable to find any turtles on the island, they are historically known to be present in the water and nest on the beaches, so we used the opportunity to teach about their biology, importance to the ecosystem and their conservation at the local school.
Atiu is a small island with a population of about 500. There are a handful of small shops offering basic groceries such as milk powder, pasta, rice, crackers and, on a good day, onions. Since everyone grows their own fruit and vegetables, these are not offered in the shops, and are therefore hard to come by if you don’t own a garden, unless you are given the better part of a banana tree as welcome gift by your landlady, or you come across a wild guava tree. If you do find a guava tree, be sure not to keep the guava for too long, even in the fridge. If you do, be sure to check for maggots BEFORE you take a bite. Being on a tropical island, however, you could try to satisfy your craving for fresh food by devouring coconuts. If you plan on doing so, do NOT forget to bring a magic coconut husking device (aka machete), or you might yourself undertaking frantic attempts to get at the coconuts using anything from tree stumps to shoes and fingernails. While these attempts tend to end unsuccessfully, if you ever do find a way to husk coconut without a magic husking device, you might just belong to the selected few of unprepared people who survive being stranded on an uninhabited island, so don’t give up.
Personally, I was planning on putting my coconut husking skills to great use on the small, uninhabited island of Takutea, about 25 km from Atiu. Phil and I had planned on assessing the turtle nesting activity in this nature reserve during our time on Atiu. Kindly, the Takutea Trustees on Atiu granted us permission to carry out our work as planned. However, the turtle nesting season overlaps with cyclone season, and we were unable to find a fisherman willing to drive us to Takutea during this time. As our work on Atiu was completed for this season, we flew to Aitutaki to continue research efforts there.
Compared to Atiu, Aitutaki felt very busy. There are lots more tourists and people in general. One great thing about Aitutaki: it’s a great place to be if you like white beaches, coconut palms and calm, turquoise water. We managed to conduct a few exhausting kayak and snorkeling trips in the beautiful Aitutaki lagoon to look for nesting activity on smaller islands of the atoll and turtles in the water. When surveying the beaches for signs of nesting activity, we didn’t find any more nests than the 6 already identified during Phil’s last expedition to Aitutaki. We organized classes from various schools to join us on the beach for nest excavations and rubbish roundups and found 7 live hatchlings! While all their siblings hatched and made their way out of the nests and to the sea, they were trapped under rocks and roots, where we found them days later. Everyone was really excited to see these baby turtles, and we were even more excited to find that, after we reburied them in the sand, they had all gone to sea by the next morning! Our work with the schools also included giving presentations on turtles, whales and coral reefs and was rewarded with many presents from the kids, including self-made tropical jam (delicious!), lots of turtle and whale drawings, flower and shell necklaces and sarongs. When the time came for us to leave Aitutaki, the children from Tekaaroa Primary School organized a proper send off party with PLENTY of food and singing, and we were very moved by these amiable gestures.
Back on Rarotonga, Phil and I conducted a few more passage surveys and eagerly engaged in writing applications for funding opportunities for the following field seasons.
I feel very blessed for having had the opportunity to live and work in such a stunning part of the world.
On another note: If you ever end up flying to a highly remote island to work and live together with someone you have never met before, consider yourself extremely lucky if this person turns out to be someone like Phil.