Island of Pearls

Photo: Cook Islands Pearl Authority

1,203 kms/748 mls North West of Rarotonga      
Access: Weekly flights from Rarotonga. Inter-island services
Population: 212    5.4 sq.kms/2.1 sq. mls


According to many, Manihiki is the most beautiful of the Cook Islands. 43 tiny islets encircle a lagoon about 8 to 10 kilometres (5 to 6 miles) in diameter and 72 metres (236 feet) at its deepest. And this completely enclosed body of water is the source of the island's greatest pearls. 
Polynesians are believed to have lived on Manihiki since at least 1500 AD. It was discovered on 13 October, 1822 when the US ship "Good Hope" sighted it. Its commander, Captain Patrickson, named it Humphrey Island


Air Rarotonga operate flights every Tuesday from the capital island. It takes about three and a half hours to reach the island, and you need to dig deep to pay the fare. A standard return from Rarotonga costs around NZ$1,600, There are also inter island flights from Manihiki to Penrhyn and also to Pukapuka. Check the airline's website for details if you are thinking of visiting more than one island. And be aware that flights to these remote northern group islands can sometimes be cancelled at short notice - either because there aren't enough passengers to make the trip viable, or if there isn't enough fuel at the destination 


Tourism is under-developed and as such accommodation is scarce. It's also very expensive to fly to Manihiki. But in the words of a Cook Islands journalist who visited: "For travellers looking for isolation and beauty, Manihiki should rank at the top of any travel bucket list"
There are plans to seal the crushed coral airstrip to allow larger planes to land and hopefully reduce the cost of getting to the island. There's talk too of turning underused kaoa (pearl farm installations) into mini holiday home escapes which would provide a unique travel experience.

Like its sister island of Rakahanga 44 kms (18 miles) north, Manihiki sits on top of an underwater mountain which rises 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) from the ocean floor. But the island itself is flat and only 4 metres (13 feet) above sea level at the highest point  which means it's under threat from rising sea levels  
Photo: Ewan Smith, Air Rarotonga

There are  two villages on the island, Tukao - the smaller of the settlements - and Tauhuna


Pearl farming, centred at Manihiki atoll, involves cultivating the special black-lipped mollusk otherwise known as the "Pinctada Margaritifera", or black-lip mother-of-pearl. Floating farms or kaoa are scattered across the lagoon.

A black pigment is naturally secreted by the mollusk and provides the resulting pearl with a basic colour ranging from black to gray. It takes 18 months to 2 years for the pearl to reach the required size, and the outstandingly clear water of the Manihiki lagoon is vital to the growth and quality 

A survey for the Ministry of Marine Resources in Rarotonga in 2000 calculated 1.5 million oysters were being cultivated. This survey also recorded 111 farms with a total of 690 culture lines and 424 spat collection lines (such as the one pictured with the diver). The total length of these farm lines was 160 kilometers, with the farms themselves covering seven square kilometres. A quarter of a million black pearls were being produced each year. But the industry has been at a low ebb for sometime now, and its estimated that as few as a dozen farms remain. Stiff competition from China and Japan, a big fall in world prices and a lack of government support are blamed for the crisis. And the latest blow is a decision to close down the Pearl Authority which was set up to help the industry and transfer its marketing function to the Marine Resources Ministry  Photos: Cook Islands Pearl Authority

A single road of crushed coral runs around the island

And you should see the one that got away! The fish is a Napolean Wrasse - males can grow up to 2 metres (6ft)
Photo: Kora and Nancy Kora, Manihiki Lagoon Villas 

Rito hat making is a skill handed down through generations . Each hat is unique and worn for Sunday worship and special events 

Quilting or tivaevae (right) is another traditional craft at which islanders are highly skilled
Find out more about these crafts  which islanders call art from the heart 

The terrifying day Manihiki was almost wiped off the map

On the afternoon of 1 November, 1997 - the first day of the hurricane season - cyclone Martin smashed huge waves through the villages and lagoon of Manihiki.  19 people died and 400 were evacuated to Rarotonga by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. 10 others were missing and in 2004 they too were officially declared dead.  One report* summed up that terrifying day

Housing was flattened, public facilities destroyed, crushed coral roads washed-out, and virtually all of the off-shore accommodation and equipment relating to the lagoon pearl-fishing industry was destroyed. Small boats, timbers and household contents were strewn everywhere, and sheets of cast-iron roofing were wrapped like tape around high trees. Sunken debris littered the edge of the lagoon to a distance of about 30 metres.

At one stage, there were serious discussions about abandoning the island altogether.  For years,  pieces of boats, tyres, trees and even fridges lay on the bottom of the lagoon, but a big clean up in 2017 removed much of the debris, along with a lot of abandoned pearl farms, lines and other equipment. 
* Extract from "Observations from a Cyclone stress/trauma assignment in the Cook Islands"  AJW Taylor Ph.D,  Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.  Photo: Cook Islands New s


Very few outsiders visit this remote island, but one who did said:
"For travellers looking for isolation and beauty, Manihiki should rank at the top of any travel bucket list"

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