Island of Pearls

Described by many as the most beautiful of the Cook Islands
Isolated and under threat from climate change

LOCATION: ​1,203 kms/748 mls North West of Rarotonga      
ACCESS: Fortnightly flights from Rarotonga. Inter-island services
LAND AREA: 5.4 sq.kms/2.1 sq. mls


Air Rarotonga operate flights on a Thursday from the capital island. It takes nearly three and a half hours to reach  Manihiki, and you need to dig deep to pay the fare and be prepared to stay a while as flights are fortnightly.   A standard return from Rarotonga costs around NZ$3,200. There are also inter-island flights from Manihiki to Penrhyn and 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. The coral airstrip is also in disrepair. The New Zealand government has pledged money to upgrade it but the plans are caught up in a land dispute


Tourism is under-developed and as such accommodation is scarce. 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.

Vast and beautiful Manihiki from the air

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. Locals have started building their own sea walls to protect their homes 
Photo: Ewan Smith, Air Rarotonga

The island is known locally as Te Fuinga o Niva. There are  two villages, Tukao - the smaller of the settlements - and Tauhuna. Each has a tiny school, churches, and stores. There are also a few pickup trucks but boats are the main form of transport

Shipped into slavery

This is the only island in the Cooks without any ariki or paramount chiefs. The entire hierarchy disappeared in the early 1860s when Peruvian labour traders (so called "blackbirders") arrived on the island and shipped 472 women and children to the mines of Peru with the blessing of the island's missionaries. Just 88 people remained....the rest were never seen again. 


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 (kaoa) are scattered across the lagoon and visits can be arranged.

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 kilometres, with the farms themselves covering seven square kilometres. A quarter of a million black pearls were being produced each year with sales netting around NZ$18 million. But the industry has been at a low ebb for sometime now, and it's 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 decline. 

Climate change is also taking its toll with more high winds and seas stirring up the normally calm waters, as well as making it harder to find the young oysters (spats) which technicians seed into shells to grow the pearls.  Photos: Cook Islands Pearl Authority

A single road of crushed coral runs into and out of Tauhuna

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 is another traditional craft at which islanders are highly skilled
Find out more about these crafts  which islanders call art from the heart 

While the island is justly famous for its black pearls, one of its uninhabited islets or motus has a pearl of its own. An enclosed lake on Porea is used to farm milkfish (ava), a notoriously boney but - I'm told(!) - extremely tasty species. Local customs say the fish must grow to an adequate size before harvesting, which is only performed during traditional ceremonies or when VIPs visit the island. Porea also has a large population of coconut crabs.

You can visit Porea and other islets on a lagoon cruise which also includes a chance to snorkel among clams, oysters and a wealth of other marine life in the crystal clear lagoon

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 around 400  - nearly half the Island's population - 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 destroy​ed. 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 News


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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