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Looking for a dive vacation destination where there's plenty of underwater life, no potential health or political problems, close to the U.S. and a bargain to boot? Ever hear of Roratonga or Aitutaki (think "Survivor" series…) Islands? These are part of the Cooks, a surprisingly little-visited (by most everyone, particularly Americans) group of islands in the South-West Pacific. The dollar goes far here, it's gorgeous, and the folks speak better English than my friends and are genuinely friendly. (Images: Cooks intro: Palms, Aitutaki boy in tub)
A few highlights of what the country's about and what you can hope to encounter on a visit there and then the specifics of what's in it for pet-fish people.
The Cook Islands are easy to find… if you know where Hawaii is to start with… The principal (southern) islands of the Cooks are situated about the same longitude, and latitude, but in the southern hemisphere. All told there are fifteen "official" islands in the Cooks… though some are atolls of very low elevation and so small ("How small are they?" You have to swim out a ways to change your mind!) no one lives on them. Spread over an area of ocean about the size of Western Europe (2,200,000 square kilometers). That's a lot of water. And though sandwiched between the Society (aka Polynesian) and Line Islands on the east and Samoa to the west. Got your bearings? (Images: Two public domain maps of the general and specific area).
Still tied to its protector, the Cook's currency is tied to the New Zealand dollar. A very favorable exchange rate (more than two to one) entices Americans, though there is admittedly not much to buy (black pearls are a bargain, some other crafts and local foodstuffs). (Images: Cooks Art: Table cloth, masks, drum set)
The "Island Night" extravaganzas (not touristy at all) are not to be missed, much better than any other place I've ever been to. Nor the church services (and this from an atheistic/agnostic type). The singing is spectacular and strong sense-of-faith palpable. Walking, cycling and motorbiking (be careful) are well-rewarded here. (Images of Palms, Coconuts, etc… with captions. Layout for show on WWM… produce as layout for print with captions).
The Pet-Fish Business in the Cooks:
Though it's a veritable paradise, has good airfreight service, a very reasonable cost of living… there is but Chip Boyle (same fellow that the Peppermint Angel is named after) and wife Claire running a collecting station in the Cooks, on Roratonga. They moved there some eleven years back from Hawaii and haven't looked back. Chip also set-up and operates the country's sole oxygen extraction and storage facility, a tremendous boon to industry and hospitals there, used in shipping the three species he targets to American and Japanese wholesalers. (Images: Chip in his holding facility, and two of the three species he almost exclusively hunts and supplies: the Fancy Bass, Pseudanthias ventralis ventralis, Cirrhilabrus scottorum)
What's In It For You Underwater?
Frequent enough visitors to Hawaiian waters to the north will be stricken with d??vu all over again in witnessing the life under the seas here… There are many species in common, but more of them and more tropical for sure.
Yes, there are invertebrates, algae in the Cooks, but do to the damage of hot waters in the early nineties and their rapidly sloping topography the reefs there are not as spectacular as more stable South Pacific locales (Shown: examples of encrusting red and Haliclona sponges, Heteractis crispa anemone, )
Fish Life Aplenty:
Due to small local populations, stigma of fish food poisoning (Ciguatera is rumored and common on some islands), and a history of imported food items, there are many strong stocks of fishes in the Cooks. Indeed, at some popular fishing-excluded areas the fish are almost too numerous and friendly to allow photography (they're too many, moving too close, too fast…!). Here's a rundown on what you might want to and see by family, alphabetically.
Click on Hyperlinks for separate family coverages for the Cook Islands.
Apogonidae, the Cardinalfishes. There are six species recorded from the Cooks, and these are all small, shallow water forms, but none of tremendous beauty or established in markets. (Examples of the three of these that are occasionally seen in the trade:)
Blenniids/oids, the Blennies and Blenny-like fishes, aren't so speciose here (neither in Hawaii) as westwards… and don't include many pet-fish favorites. Of the Combtooth or True Blennies fifteen species, about the only one I've seen from here is the Rippled Rockskipper, Istiblennius edentulus. (No pic). Of course there are plenty of the Fang Blenny, Plagiotremus tapeinosoma to bite divers and unwary fishes.
Jacks/Trevallys, family Carangidae. That current darling of public aquariums, the Golden Trevally, Gnathanodon speciosus is found here, leading divers and predatory fishes about as young, and with some of its twenty two Jack family species on dinner plates at restaurants. This fish grows, quickly, to more than three feet in length.
Butterflyfishes, family Chaetodontidae. There are two more species of Butterflies found here than the Hawaiians, twenty-seven all told. They comprise the usual blend of aquarium suitable to terrible survivability. I'll go over them here accordingly, utilizing the sliding three level scale of "good", ones that more than half live three months, "medium" ones that only have live a month or so, and "bad" ones where most all are dead within a month.
Puffers of different sorts are found here. There are a couple of Burrfishes, family Diodontidae, Diodon hystrix, the Spotted Burrfish and Diodon liturosus, the Black-Blotched Porcupinefish., but both these get more than two feet in length.
The "true puffers", family Tetraodontidae, do little bit better here, with Arothron hispidus, the White-Spotted Puffer, and Arothron meleagris, the Guinea Fowl Puffer growing to twenty inches in length in the wild, though the latter is commonly offered in the trade. The Blackspotted Puffer, Arothron nigropunctatus, is found here and very popular as an aquatic pet… it too attains more than a foot in length.
For folks without invertebrates or fishes easily nipped by them there are five species of Tobies, or Sharpnose Puffers to choose from. Canthigaster bennetti, Bennett's Sharpnose Puffer (Image), Canthigaster epilampra, the Lantern Goby, Canthigaster leoparda, the Leopard Sharpnose Puffer Canthigaster solandri, the Spotted Sharpnose Puffer (Image), and Canthigaster valentini, Valentini's Sharpnose Puffer that has a filefish mimic. You have to look close to discern Paraluterus prionurus. (Show both). These nippers eat filamentous and coralline algae, as well as benthic invertebrates.
The two most popular species of Boxfishes (family Ostracidae) used in the aquarium interest hail from here. Ostracion cubicus, the Yellow Boxfish and Ostracion meleagris, the Blue (male), Black (female) or Whitespotted Boxfish.
Gobies, family Gobiidae, like Blennioids are not speciose here. Seventeen described species? I'd bet that a thorough investigation of the region would find several new ones. Of those that are found in the Cooks, though all others could be used for easygoing reef set-ups, the two members of the genus Valenciennes, Valenciennea sexguttata is the Sixspot Goby, and Valenciennea strigata, the Blueband Goby. Neither are great beauties, but do excel as sand sifters if you can get them not already too-starved and place them in a setting with adequate interstitial fauna/food.
The Red-banded Shrimp-Goby, Amblyeleotris fasciata is occasionally imported as an ornamental, though not from here.
There are some smaller species of Squirrelfishes, family Holocentridae, out of the twenty-one species found here, that are both hardy and stay small enough to be considered for aquarium use. I would consider five from here as best, due to good looks, maximum size (in the wild) at less than a foot. They are: Myripristis berndti, the Blotcheye Soldierfish, Myripristis murdjan, the Pinecone Soldierfish, Myripristis violacea, the Latticework Soldierfish, Neoniphon sammara, the Sammara Soldierfish, and Sargocentron diadema, the Crown Squirrelfish.
I'd like to (so I will) mention the Sabre Squirrelfish, Sargocentron spiniferum, as it can be found here, and is used/sold in the trade, but really should not be… it is an aggressive species that grows to some eighteen inches.
Wrasses, family Labridae. The Cooks are "Wrasse rich" with fifty described species. These are a mix of some used in the trade that shouldn't, should be, others that could, would be if enough we're popularly known about them.
Sharks. Oh yes, there are sharks here. In fact they are all too common in the Northern group of the Cooks… though fished out for the most part on the more populous southern islands. Of species (mis)used my aquarists, only the Blacktip Reef Shark, Carcharhinus melanapterus is found here… and should be left in the sea. (show one)
Fenner, Robert. 1999. A Fishwatcher's Guide to the Saltwater Aquarium Fishes of the
World. WetWebMedia, San Diego. 196pp.
Keller, Nancy & Tony Wheeler. 1998. Rarotonga & the Cook Islands. Lonely Planet,
Smith, Ewan. 1998. The Cook Islands. Everbest, Hong Kong. 180pp.s (Gorgeous photos)
DMAS Oral Pitch Outline: Bob Fenner WetWebMedia.com
Pet-Fishing in the Cook Islands:
1) Thanks, introduction to speaker
2) What, Where?
3) Sights, Sounds
4) Pet-Fishing In Earnest: Key Species, legal and economic factors