Heaving his body into the dinghy, James Kora looks at the sky and sighs relief. He holds in his hand a fingernail-sized piece of paua flesh, clipped from a clam wedged between rocks 20 metres deep, tucked beneath three-metre swells.
James, a marine scientist with the Ministry of Marine Resources, is freediving at the easternmost point of Takutea, where the trade winds roil the waters. There are other Ministry scientists on shore and on the reef, who sailed with James to Manuae and Takutea aboard traditional canoe Marumaru Atua for the purpose of surveying paua.
But James, who wears a mask and snorkel, rugby shorts, and a knife strapped around his calf, has the day’s most challenging task: to find the rare paua that lives in deeper waters.
The fieldwork is tiring, even for a 25-year-old athlete who grew up on a pearl farm in a place where diving is a man’s rite of passage. Marumaru Atua crew have taken to calling him Aquaman.
“Questions,” James prompts the driver of the dinghy. Richard Story, an Aitutaki-based senior fisheries officer, issues questions as directed: depth and temperature of the water where the paua was found, number of paua within a two-metre radius of it, coverage of coral and algae nearby, GPS coordinates, species, size.
Today’s technology makes it possible to survey algae and coral from the air, but understanding a marine animal means going underwater, the way early fisheries managers did thousands of years ago.
“Nothing like the human eye,” Richard says, as he drives James to the next survey site. “Can’t beat it.”
The clipping, one of 100 from last week’s expedition, will be sent to a laboratory offshore, where experts will study genetic patterns to understand how paua reproduce in and between the Cook Islands.
The results, due to be released next year, will inform discussions about some touchy issues, such as: What kind of management is necessary to ensure that eating paua remains part of Cook Islands’ culture and lifestyle into the future?
Or perhaps even: Is the export of a thousand kilos of clams per year sustainable, given the population’s recent history? (According to data collected by the National Environment Service, 7000 kilos of clam meat left the country in 2008; in years prior to that, the figure reached 11,000.)
“Eating paua, for us, is a local thing,” James says. “I don’t want to take that away from the people – but I do want to be able to say here are the studies that have been done and this is what we need to do to ensure we have this resource for future generations to come. That’s the avenue science can provide. If we manage it better, we don’t have to leave a whole resource and lifestyle behind.”
James grew up on Manihiki, where careful resource management has always governed life. Before the missionaries arrived and planted churches, the people of Rakahanga and Manihiki rotated between their islands.
“They would live on one island for some years and then move back to the other island,” James explains.
“When you talk to the elders, they say it was to let the fruit and abundance of the island — the coconuts, fish, vana, crayfish, shellfish, the paua — replenish. They knew it took a few years for it to come back and be thriving again.”
Strict, enforced, and community-driven management is a national heritage in the Cook Islands. Conservation isn’t a modern idea.
Some islands continue to steadfastly honour the ra’ui; others don’t. On Rarotonga, for example, where there are often 10 times as many visitors as residents and most people work office jobs, enforcement has proven to be a challenge.
“In places like Mangaia, the ra’ui seems to be working really well,” says Kirby Morejohn, a marine scientist with the Ministry of Marine Resources and organiser of last week’s expedition. “But our data shows ra’ui isn’t working in places like Aitutaki and Rarotonga.”
As part of the Ridge to Reef project, funded by the United Nations’ Global Environment Facility, a Ministry team was last year tasked with surveying marine life in the islands of the southern group. After the data was collated, one thing that became clear was that paua were in trouble.
Around Aitutaki, for example, there were fewer than five paua within an area of 100 square metres, compared to nearly 500 in the same space 30 years ago.
The data shows that a couple of decades after the international airport began operating, paua populations began to crash. Cook Islanders moved across oceans, carrying their tastes and traditions, and requested containers of paua to eat and sell.
People began exporting them, sending tens of thousands of kilos overseas. On Aitutaki, the population fell by nearly 100 per cent between 1988 and 2017.
The decline mirrors a larger-scale trend; paua is on the international list of species vulnerable to becoming extinct, not least because in Asia they are ornaments worth up to $3,000.
Part of the problem is that paua is an accessible species. It doesn’t move. It needs sunlight in order to make its own food, the way plants do, so it mostly lives in shallow waters (though a relative few are found in deeper waters).
It’s especially vulnerable, not only because people like to eat it but also because it’s more exposed to warming sea temperatures and the kinds of storms a changing climate promises to deliver.
“You can’t control the natural environment so what you can do is come up with ways to ease the human pressure – not remove it, because we understand that it’s a valuable and sought-after resource, but come up with good strategies to ease it through good management,” says Dr Lara Ainley, senior marine ecologist at the Ministry and co-organiser of last week’s research expedition.
This is the ultimate goal of survey work: to understand a resource in order to help decision-makers set limits and rules for its harvest.
Limits have borne results. In 2015, the government of Niue found that because 10,000 coconut crabs were being exported each year, largely to Niueans overseas, the population had dwindled so much it was rare to sight a crab.
The government banned the export of the resource and installed scanners at the airport; today in Niue you’ll find coconut crabs running across roads.
“You can’t manage what you don’t study,” Morejohn says.
Terii Pittman has seen more of the Pacific Ocean than most.
As a crew member on Marumaru Atua since 2012, she has dived in some of the world’s most remote seas, in places like Rapa Nui and the outer islands of Fiji. Once, she lived on the canoe for five months.
But at Manuae, it's like she's peering beneath the sea for the first time.
“This is amazing!” she says when she comes up for air, before plunging her face back into the water to marvel at the vivid turquoises, oranges, and purples that squiggle through the mouths of the Tridacna maxima, or paua, blanketing the lagoon’s sandy floor.
Terii was born and bred on Rarotonga. By the time she was old enough to be interested in studying the sea, the clams that feed humans and filter oceans and build reefs and islands had been so over-harvested that for her, an abundance of them existed only in the stories old people told.
And so, on Manuae, Terii is spellbound, using words like special, beautiful, and incredible to describe what she sees beneath the sea, having been invited to go ashore with the Ministry scientists who want to share their work with interested members of the Marumaru Atua crew.
Manuae, which bears a resemblance to Aitutaki in its white sandbars and stunning turquoise lagoon, possesses the densest population of paua in the southern Cook Islands. The data is striking: where Aitutaki’s clam population dwindled from about 500 per 100 square metres in 1988 to about five in 2017, Manuae’s went from about 300 to 200.
Whether or not Manuae is a source population – whether it feeds populations across the sea – was one of the questions last week’s expedition sought to answer. Paua are broadcast spawners; this means they shoot sperm and eggs into the water, which join to make larvae that can travel a long way before it settles.
Can the larvae travel as far as 90 kilometres, the distance between Manuae and Aitutaki? Can managing Manuae’s paua help to recover Aitutaki’s? The genetic samples will tell.
“If Manuae goes, where are we going to get all the stock from?” says Richard, who manages the clam hatchery at the Aitutaki Marine Research Centre, where clams are being slowly farmed.
“Then we’ll have to rely on the hatchery, which will take much longer and a lot of money and manpower.”
Another question the research team wants to answer is whether there’s another species in the Cook Islands beyond the three that are already known, a possibility recently suggested by a regional scientist.
Only clams of the same species can reproduce together, so if the data shows dense populations of Tridacna maxima, but some of those are actually Tridacna noae, which looks similar, the population is actually thinner than believed.
“It’s sad,” says Richard, who remembers a time when you struggled to walk on Aitutaki’s reef without stepping on a giant clam. “Imagine your grandkids. They may not even know what a paua is.”
If science is the practice of understanding how the world works, then there is perhaps no better example than celestial navigation.
Aboard Marumaru Atua, you watch the stars to stay your course. When the clouds cover them, you focus on what you feel: the wind in your face and the movement of the swells. Navigating is like planting; it forces you to pay attention.
Tuning in to the rhythms of the natural world means learning to harmonise — to begin participating in the world, instead of operating apart from it. It means becoming aware that resources are not just products, but bearers of healing, beauty, and life.
When you’re steering a canoe through sheets of pelting rain, you learn respect for nature. When you’re waking up to whales alongside your floating home or sailing beneath a bowl of stars, you remember gratitude.
All of these are reasons taking Marumaru Atua on a scientific research expedition last week made sense. The vaka, which crew endearingly call Mama Maru, has carried messages of sustainability and stewardship through the Pacific. She is part of the regional renaissance of traditional voyaging, a reclaiming of a heritage grounded in harmony.
“Apart from tradition and culture and ancestry, she teaches us to look after our lands, our islands, our oceans,” says Sam Timoko, who captained last week’s voyage. “Our ancestors used to care for the land and the ocean. We have so much to learn from them.”
Both conservation and the vaka represent a return to a more sustainable lifestyle. Last week’s mission allowed for a powerful exchange of knowledge about traditional and modern forms of science that involved and impacted the future decision-makers on board.
Like Stella Marsters, a 24-year-old lab technician for the Ministry of Marine Resources, who grew up swimming in Rutaki, studied environmental science at university, and through seasickness called last week’s research mission “amazing”.
Like Helene Johnson, the 18-year-old sailing champion and Marumaru Atua crew member who has plans to grow her own food as a means of supporting herself. And like 18-year-old Charlee McLean, another crew member who interns at Te Ipukarea Society and wants to pursue a career related to saving the ocean.
Ian Karika, longtime president of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, says the vaka has long stood for reconnection to nature and culture. But last week’s voyage represented something different.
“This was a first for us,” he says. “This was special.”
By being part of modern scientific research, Mama Maru reminds us that traditional and modern can coexist, both in people and in policy.
“The concept of conservation and the concept or idea of the vaka are symbolically linked,” Terii says, “in terms of having to live within your means, in terms of having to be sustainable, in terms of having to be responsible for your space and your resources.”
Both represent the Cook Islands way.