Manihiki Atoll: A Survival Story – Northern Atolls, Cook Islands

Manihiki Atoll: A Survival Story
Northern atolls, Cook Islands

“…We heard the wave and saw it coming. It was taller than the house….there was no more than five seconds to prepare, and we were too surprised to move fast. I grabbed Manie and my husband, Willie, held onto Taromi. I remember a tumbling wave of water coming with pigs, chickens, and coconuts, and remember holding onto my daughter by her arm. Then the wave hit, we were torn apart and washed into the lagoon. The last time I saw my daughter a wave was breaking over her – she sank into the lagoon and I did not see her come back up. Then I saw my husband, alive but alone, and realized my other daughter was gone as well. The winds were on us, the waves in the lagoon were at least 5 meters, it was getting dark, and I had no hope. I believed we were going to die.”

Many would. On November 21, 1997, the ocean exploded and time stopped on Manihiki atoll in the northern Cook Islands.

Her name is Anna Katoa and she lived to become the principal at the school in Tahuna, one of two villages on Manihiki. She is 50ish, barefoot, and with glasses pushed up on her head and a pencil in her ear, looks the atoll schoolmarm part. School is over for the day, and she is packing up. Without introductions, she knows who we are. Everyone on the atoll does: as the first US visitors in three years, Karen and I have achieved minor celebrity status among the 220 islanders. She offers us a coconut, the drink of choice on an atoll where a can of Coke – if you can find it – costs $5. We accept and make small talk.

When the time seems right, I tell her why I want to speak with her. She flinches, glances at my wife and looks quickly away, staring out the window at nothing. She is now far away, troubled, remembering. I have seen this look before: it is the look of a combat veteran who has seen too much, remembers too much, the 1000 yard stare. I have gone too fast, and I can see that Karen thinks so, too.

It is quiet for a couple of minutes, the seconds ticking painfully off one by one. She returns to the table, sits down, and absently moves some papers around the table. She crosses her hands, looks me in the eye, and voice shaking, asks “why?” Of course – she needs a reason to dredge this up. I mention something about telling people about courage, about the difficulty of atoll living. Perhaps to tell a story the world should know, but doesn’t. She slowly nods. She tells me this would be the first time she has spoken of this in many years, and that I will have to be patient. Her speech is halting and uncertain, her eyes now downcast. Her hands are trembling, and the voice is shaky, the words coming slowly. “I will tell you my story,” she says “but you really should speak to my husband.”

The northern atoll of Manihiki in the Cook Islands is the end of the road. Difficult and expensive to get to, Manihiki is about as distant from anywhere in the Pacific as a traveler can be. Samoa lies 800 miles to the west, Christmas Island in Kiribati, 1000 miles to the north. Rarotonga, the main island from whence we came, is 700 miles to the south. We are in a small, eight seat aircraft, the pride of Air Raro, ducking thunderheads, hell and gone in the middle of nowhere, and we have paid $1000 each for the privilege of flying here. The plane is bucking, my sandwich has ants on it, and the island boy sitting behind me on the plane is violently ill.

The flight takes well over four hours, and crossing several hundred miles of the Pacific provides the time to view one of the most impressive cloud displays on the planet. The thunderheads and cloud formations in the equatorial Pacific are the skyscrapers of the ocean, reaching to 35,000 feet and resembling the nuclear mushroom clouds that have blossomed over the Pacific since the end of WWII. The colors are spectacular, the sky a kalidoscope of clouds. Then, after a long time, a smudge of something appears on the horizon.

The history of Manihiki is one of splendid isolation, shattered by the coming of whites in the 1800s. Over 2000 years ago, ocean going Maori canoes from Samoa and Tonga discovered the northern atolls on their way to colonize the Society Islands (FP), but they did not stay. Almost 1000 years later, islanders from Rarotonga and Aitutaki colonized Manihiki and Rakahanga. In 1852, the world changed. Missionaries arrived, followed by whalers, and with them came diseases with predictable and tragic results. As was so often the case, the missionaries convinced the islanders that their health was related to their failure to embrace Christianity. Wholesale conversions followed, which ostensibly saved their souls while concurrently allowing their culture and population to be decimated. Peruvian slave traders plundered Manihiki and Rakahanga in the mid-1850s for slave labor to work the silver mines of Peru, and for the women, who were (and are) among the most beautiful in the Pacific. None ever returned. Yet more islanders were lured onto a ship in 1869 for a visit to Rakahanga, only to find themselves sold into slavery in Fiji. By 1885, there were less than 70 people left on Manihiki. Slowly, others arrived from the southern islands, and by 1940 there were 200 people living on Manihiki lagoon.

The lagoon, some ten square kilometers, is torn from an idyllic south seas postcard. Impossibly blue, the lagoon is as much as 200 feet deep, surrounded by coconut palm fringed islands called “motus”, and sprinkled with small islands in the lagoon itself known as “kawas.” The corals on the lagoon edges are brilliant and healthy. Two villages exist at opposite ends of the lagoon, Tahunu to the south, and Tukao to the north. The kawas contain sheds for working the pearl oysters that have made Manihiki something of a poster child for the industry. The pearl divers of Manihiki hold the world free dive record of 56 meters, and they do it every day. Black pearls have allowed Manihiki to maintain a unique identity, and give its children a reason to stay home, instead of migrating to Rarotonga or New Zealand as many others on remote atolls have done. The oyster has allowed a proud people to remain so.

Once we land, how long we will be here is anyone’s guess. An iffy flight at best – Air Raro cancels the “weekly” flight if it is not full, which means that you may be going to Manihiki for a couple of weeks, or for a couple of months. There is one place to stay, with two rooms and fans that quit at midnight. The heat is always on high, never dropping below 29° celsius. You eat coconut “something” and fish twice a day. It is not an atoll created for picky people on tight travel budgets, tight schedules, or with major dietary issues, explaining in part why they have only had 23 visitors in five years. It also explains why we are here.

The lagoon feeds the people of Manihiki, as it has for hundreds of years. “Pava” or gold trevally is the fish of choice, but is one among hundreds of species that explode on the sandy flats. There are blue fin trevally, and bonefish, barracuda, parrotfish and the massive Napoleon wrasse. There are snapper and coral trout, purple goatfish, sea snakes, and remoras two feet long. There are eels by the hundreds – I demonstrate rather conclusively that a 7 foot moray that mistakenly eats a bonefish fly will charge the angler. And there are sharks – thousands of them, more than I have ever seen anywhere, from small juvinelle black tips to massive brutes 3 meters long. Like the people of Manihiki, they too have never seen a fly fisherman before, and as I wade the flats, Karen trails me with a long pole to push the sharks away. Some are more pugnacious than others, coming back a second and even a third time. On a slow day, we will see hundreds. Those are the ones inside the lagoon. A trip outside the reef in a small aluminum boat featured a 16′ hammerhead trying to bite the prop off the 30 horse engine.

The lagoon feeds Manihiki, and also protects it. Most tropical storms break on the facing edge of the atoll, leaving the lagoon to shelter the residents. In 1997, however, people fleeing to the lagoon would find no protection from Tropical Cyclone Martin, the strongest to hit the northern atolls in over 75 years. Martin, which had actually passed Manihiki the day before, did a very unexpected 180° turn, and on November 21st, the people of Manihiki found themselves fighting for their lives.

“The waves were now breaking over our heads” Anna continued. “My husband grabbed me and held so tightly I was still bruised a week later. I was thinking of my unborn baby [she was five months pregnant at the time] and crying over my lost daughters. It was getting dark, and we could hear nothing but the wind and waves. A body floated by, then, by an act of God, a small, capsized boat appeared. We grabbed the boat – my husband tied me to the engine with his belt so that I would not be lost. I remember the boat bouncing in the waves, and felt something strike me in the back. I grabbed at it – a dead chicken. We thought we might wash up on a motu on the edge of the lagoon, but had no idea where we were until John cried out “hold on – we’re going over the reef!”

“And so, in complete darkness, we entered the open ocean. It was indescribable – the waves must have been 15 meters and we could see nothing. How John held on I will never know. Everyone knew about the sharks outside the lagoon, but I don’t think the thought ever crossed my mind. I was sick with grief and fear, cold and half drowned. I thought the night would never end…

“…at dawn the wind had died somewhat, but the seas were mountainous. Manihiki was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, as a wave crested, we saw a body on the curl, a man lying on his back. John yelled out, and to our amazement, he lifted his head. It was Willie, from our village – he too had been washed out of the lagoon with his wife, but he lost her that night and he had simply decided to die. He came to the boat, and at that moment, we heard a girl’s cry from under the boat. Somehow she had been there all night, breathing in an air pocket. I knew it was my daughter…they tried righting the boat, but in their excitement forgot I was tied to it. Once they had released me the three of us were able to finally turn it over.”

“But the little girl in the boat was not either of my daughters. I remember crying, holding that frightened child to me, praying, cursing, and crying some more. I was at my wit’s end, hysterical. The poor child was hysterical, too [she would lose her parents in the storm].”

“John and Willie said we better gather what flotsam we could, as we were likely to be at sea for many weeks. We collected coconuts – we were terribly thirsty by this time. We found a dead pig and pulled it on board. Of all things, a sleeping bag came floating by, and we grabbed that too. Towards evening, the guys were able to get a bearing and thought if we were not already past it, we might be able to make it to Rakahanga (another atoll, about forty miles north). So the sleeping bag became a sail, with two of us alternating as masts.”

“On the morning of the third day, sunburned and desperate, we saw land on the northern horizon. It was Rakahanga, and we knew we would live…”

Hers is one of many survival stories on Manihiki, and while filled with tragedy, is also one of redemption. For when she returned to Manihiki, she discovered that Manie was not dead, but had clung to the top of a coconut palm until dawn came and she was rescued. Manie now has a sister who is seven, the unborn child carried over the reef into the open ocean. “That is Manie,” Anna said, pointing to a lovely girl of about 13 listening intently outside “and she has never talked about that night…please do not ask her to talk about it.” Our eyes meet, and she runs away.

Nancy Kora is the wife of Kora Kora, the governor of Manihiki. She remembers the storm…”we knew one was coming, of course, but it had gone past us and the winds were not that bad, and we were actually outside talking to our neighbors. The wind shifted slightly, and we heard someone yell ‘here comes the wave!’ and within a few seconds we saw it coming. It was at least four meters high. I remember it was really dirty, tumbling with coconuts, tree branches and animals. I grabbed James, who was still in nappies at the time, and scrambled up the angled wall of the house. I was able to reach the roof before the wave reached me, so I made it. The wave grabbed Kora and I thought I would lose him, but he grabbed a palm stump and held on. He was stretched out behind it, holding on for dear life. I was screaming, convinced we would die.”

“My sister, Christine, tried to make it to the roof, but was carried away. I watched as she was swept into the lagoon and disappeared into the darkness. It was getting dark very fast, and the wind was howling. The night lasted forever…the next morning, I came down from the roof and immediately began looking for my sister. Other survivors had seen her go under after I had seen her and thought she was dead. I was shattered, crying. Late that day, a boat pulled up and Christine was in it. She and another man had been washed all the way across the lagoon, but had managed to hold onto a motu until the waves died. She was bloody and had a broken arm, but she was alive. We were hysterical with joy. It was one of the best moments of my life.”

And so the stories go, filled with loss and sorrow, and the occasional miracle. The center of Tahunu village remains empty. The foundations of houses taken out by the wave remain, but in the place of the houses are now graves. Of the 120 people in Tahunu village, 19 would never see Manihiki again. Of those 19, only four bodies were ever recovered. Of those who survived, 20% of the survivors left never to return. Tropical cyclone Martin had taken a third of Tahunu village.

The flight finally arrives, several days late, and we say our goodbyes. Nancy’s daughter, Tiare, hugs me and asks when we’ll be back. As I board the plane, I look out over the people at the airstrip, many of whom I have met and interviewed. They wave and smile. Tough people, they are some of the warmest I have met in my travels. As the plane banks over Manihiki, I look down into the lagoon, azure and sparkling. My gaze continues over the reef, and Manihiki is seen for what is: a tentative paradise in the middle of nowhere, with a thin margin of reef between the atoll and the deep, unpredictable waters of the equatorial Pacific. The waves break on the reef and the coral heads sparkle in the sun as the plane turns south towards Rarotonga.