The Elusive Coconut Crabs of Suwarrow Atoll

We were fortunate to be able to spend a week at Suwarrow Atoll, a Cook Islands National Park, in the northern Cooks. We had originally planned to sail south to Rarotonga, but the weather had other plans for us. Instead, we sailed west with most of other boats leaving French Polynesia in July. After checking out in Bora Bora, the last official port where you can do so, we made stops at Maupiti and Maupihaa to break up the over 600 nm trip. Our buddy boat Manna with Curtis and Julie had left a week earlier and were still there when we arrived, and other buddy boat Muskoka with Scott and Laurie followed a day behind us. As a National Park, Suwarrow has only a resident staff of two rangers from June to October. A boat drops them off with all the supplies they need for their entire stay and picks them back up at the end of the season. They get to choose their provisions, “except beer and wine,” laments John, assistant ranger. Along with head ranger Harry, they check in and out visiting boats, give tours of the tiny Anchorange Island, tell stories about Suwarrow, and enjoy the inevitable cruiser pot lucks on the beach for some different foods and their only source of beer and wine during their stay. The atoll has a long history. Discovered by Russians in 1814 and named after general Alexander Suvorov, it now bears his Anglocized name. Apparently, Robert Louis Stevenson visited in 1890, but as far as we can tell, the only treasure here is as many free coconuts as you can carry. Camille wowed the rangers with her quick and expert shucking shortly after we arrived. It takes a special touch to spear the husk on the strong shucking stick followed by just the right twist to pul it apart. The most famous resident of Suwarrow was New Zealander Tom Neal who lived on Anchorage Island on and off for 16 years from 1952 to 1977. There is a small statue/memorial to him on the island near the ranger’s quarters. He wrote a book about his experiences which we’ll have to track down and read. Despite the strange weather ofconstantly shifting winds accompanied by seemingly random periods of sun and rain, we had a great week in the atoll. Three more boats showed up the day after we arrived, bringing to total to 16, which is not uncommon in the summer. We had to hunt around a little to find a good anchorage spot due to coral reefs that drop off quickly, but our patience paid off. As in the Tuamotus, we had to attach floats to our anchor chain to prevent getting wrapped around multiple heads of coral, as did other boats who didn’t take this prudent precaution. Several boats had to reanchor after wrapping around multiple coral and one boat even broke a bow sprit. During our “busy” week, we had a potluck on the shore, a movie night with Muskoka, pizza and game night on shore, several snorkeling excursions, and hosted the three crew from boat Sea Casa for dinner the night before their departure for Pago Pago. Kyra, Camille, and kids from other boats enjoyed rounding up hermit crabs from the beach for crab races. They draw a large circle in the sand, everyone picks their crap and gingerly deposits them in the center. Then the excitement begins as we watch to see whose crab with be the first to leave the ring. Several always stay put in the center, much to the chagrin of their “handlers.” We had also heard of the coconut crabs who inhabit the islands. Once prized for their tasty meat, the are now protected on most South Pacific Islands, and Suwarrow is no exception. Ranger Harry explained that they can live to over 60 years old and grow very slowly. They are the largest land-based crabs and eat primarily coconuts and from time to time even climb the trees to claim their feast. Having not seen any in French Polynesia, we were naturally eager to see them. Harry explained that they like to hide out in the heat of the day and only usually come out at night or during rain storms. He invited the cruisers back after dark to show us. It was the same night as our pizza/gaming get-together on the beach. There’s a very nice setup with hammocks, a few tables, benches which the rangers and helpful cruisers nicely maintain. Just after dark, Harry and John came padding over with the largest coconut crab we’ll probably ever see. They’ve named him “George” and see him frequently around the ranger house. Visiting biologists estimated his age at 40 years old, not surprisingly dating him to just after Tom Neal left the island. I’ll bet ‘ole Tom ate a lot of coconut crab. Many others came scuttling out of the underbrush looking for food. They look a little menacing with the large front claws and long second set of legs, with which they’ll swipe at you with if you get too close, but like most crabs they’re shy and generally retreat when people approach. It’s great to see how these giant crabs have thrived with the National Park protection. With the weather window to Niue opening, it was nearly time for us to leave. One group of boats planned to head off to Pago Pago on American Samoa for either repairs or a stop on the way to Tonga. We’ve heard good things about Niue (pronounced “new way”) and have been eager to make it there. Manna and Muskoka also decided to head there. Based on the forecasts, we decided to leave on Friday, August 10th (after stocking up on 10 more coconuts for the voyage). The prevailing winds were forecast to be NE to NW, which makes for a good reach (wind on the side) straight to Niue. Since then we’ve seen several shifts, but as of Sunday afternoon we’re sailing along at 8 kts with 17 kts of wind. It’s supposed to die down in the evening, so we’ll see if we can keep sailing or will have to motor a bit. Niue is one of the smallest self-governing countries in the world, although New Zealand provides significant support for them. There are no harbors or even anchorages, so we’ll be staying on mooring floats generously provided by the Niue Yacht Club. With tourism one of the few small income generators on the island (the others being fishing and farming), they had to do something to make it possible for passing cruisers to visit. We’ll share more about this interesting island in an upcoming post.

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