Residents and motorists were stopped in their tracks as a freak wave smashed over the Rutaki lagoon, up the shore and into homes, flattening one building in its path.
It comes after warnings at this week’s Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting of high waters threatening coastlines and homes.
Only a day after Prime Minister Henry Puna voiced his concerns on climate change, the giant waves was scattering debris across coastal Rutaki.
The Met Service had forecast high swells from the west to the south-west of Rarotonga, but the size of the wave caught everyone by surprise.
At the nearby Rarotongan Resort, the wave washed into some guest rooms and smashed a window of the seafront Te Vaka Restaurant, despite the resort preparing well by boarding up windows.
Big rocks and coconuts were hurled across the main road, briefly stopping traffic.
Cook Islands News print manager Dan Johnston was driving by. “The road was completely covered in coconuts and boulders,” he said.
“The houses across the road were completely flooded. There were probably about five or six motorists stopped on the side of the road to stop the debris – that was good to see. I stopped and spoke to a local on the side of the road. He said he’d never seen anything like this before.”
Tourists came in numbers to watch the aftermath – what they called “freaky waves” at Rutaki.
Holidaymakers Kiani Mete, Tereinga Patu, Bailey Hetaraka, Ariana Mete said they were looking for somewhere to swim, and a family member suggested Rutaki.
They said they thought it would be calmer – but they found themselves body-surfing huge waves coming right at them.
“However scary it seemed, it was beautiful,” one said.
A businesswoman said it was already high tide and the waves were coming in over the rocks and onto the main road.
She had warned tourists not to stand near the beachside, to move their cars from the area as the waves were coming directly at them.
Samuela Raikatalau said he and his workmate were driving past the area when they felt the wave hit the vehicle. It was crazy, he said, that people just stood there to watch.
Down the road at The Rarotongan, sales and marketing riector Liz Raizis said seawater had entered some guest rooms and the housekeeping team was working to clean them out in readiness for their guests.
“We have had some damage,” she said. “A window pane at our Te Vaka Restaurant which sits right beside Aroa Lagoon was broken by the freak wave. Our team saw the lagoon swelling and were expecting high seas, so took some precautions by boarding up some of our most beachfront suites to protect them before the wave hit.”
The sea came right up to the decks of about three newly-refurbished beachfront rooms, Raizis added, but guests just sunbathed a little higher up the beach.
She had been showing a Brisbane couple the beach a short while later, ahead of their wedding on Monday. “They seemed to take in in their stride,” she said. “they are more worried about the weather on Monday!”
Raizis said resort security staff were monitor the high seas overnight. “This is definitely much higher than normal but nowhere near as bad as it can get.”
Met Service director Arona Ngari attributed the freak wave to an extratropical low system that coincided with the high tide.
“We have moderate seas at the moment but swells associated with the extratropical system between us and New Zealand is creating this wave that spills on the beach and into the roads,” he said.
“The inundation affected some houses right on the coast and the owners have learnt their lesson and moved inland.”