Whale Centre closes doors for final time

Tuesday November 07, 2017 Written by Published in Local
Mike Tavioni outside the now-empty Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre in Atupa. 17110313 Mike Tavioni outside the now-empty Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre in Atupa. 17110313

Rarotonga’s popular Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre has closed its doors for the last time.


Although former managers Sheryl and Huw John did not want to comment on the reasons behind the closure of the business, they said their company, Cook Islands Wildlife Centre Ltd, which owns the exhibits that were on display at the Atupa back road centre, may pop up at a new location on the island in the future.

Huw John said all the exhibits had been stored away in a shipping container until they decided what to do next.

CINews was alerted to the sudden closure when Rarotonga resident Trish Thompson wrote a letter to the editor lamenting the fact that the island was about to lose a much-admired attraction.

“Sheryl and Huw have not just run a business but have helped educate us about birdlife and other animals on the island and how to care for birds especially when they are injured or abandoned as chicks,” she wrote.

“They have provided great resources for school visits and shown children why we need to protect the creatures in the lagoon and ocean.”

The land on which the centre’s building still stands was originally given by Ellena Tavioni-Pittman for educational purposes and she said as long as the building was used for education in future, she would be happy.

“I’m just interested in young Cook Islands children being more aware, and educated on everything, from the environment, the ocean, to health.”

Over the 17 years it has been open, the centre has captured the imagination of thousands of visitors, both young and old.

Its marine exhibits, included a poisonous stone fish, educational videos, gigantic whale bones and other artefacts, including a whale hunter’s harpoon and the 1900s metal dive suit.

School groups regularly visited the centre and educational courses had been adopted into the local school curriculum on how to care for the environment and take “ownership” of their whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and creatures on the land.

The centre has also provided an educational experience for locals, tourists, interns, visiting scientists, volunteers and government officials.

And if it hadn’t first been for Tavioni-Pittman’s generosity, it may not have ever been built.

More than 17 years ago she was asked by her uncle and local carving legend, Mike Tavioni to help out with a base for the then newly arrived whale researcher from the US, Nan Hauser.

After being approached by Hauser, Tavioni discovered they shared a mutual passion for whale conservation.

“When Nan arrived here, someone told her that I collected whale bones, whale oil, or whatever I can.”

Tavioni says he was excited to hear Hauser wanted to start a whale research programme.

“At the time we seemed to share the same interests and I was happy to see someone with the same attitude to preservation of whales.

“I thought that it was appropriate that she have a base to work from, and maybe that base could have an educational centre. So that locals, especially, could access information about whales and why it’s important to conserve them.

“On that understanding I asked my niece who owns this land for a section to build that place. And I told her it should be at no rent, as it was an educational thing.”

Standing at the almost-empty centre last week, he said all that was left inside now were his whale bones and an old harpoon.

The centre got off to a slow start in 2000, opening only sporadically until Hauser brought in Sheryl and Huw John, who turned it into a commercially viable business.

Proceeds from every admission went towards supporting Hauser’s whale research work.


  • Comment Link Carole Long Wednesday, 08 November 2017 17:13 posted by Carole Long

    Most impressed with the centre each time I have visited - last visit in June this year and will look forward to the next step - the amazing specimens on display were becoming cramped for space and a new site will give them much more impact. Best wishes for the future!

  • Comment Link Paul  Meryn Fleming Wednesday, 08 November 2017 10:58 posted by Paul Meryn Fleming

    So sad to see this close. We have been on your beautiful island 3 times and will be back July 2018.
    We visit this attraction at least twice every year and love to see it every time☹
    My husband is a collector of old stuff and absolutely loved Whale and Wildlife Centre.
    A great loss for Rarotonga

  • Comment Link Lynne Wednesday, 08 November 2017 07:32 posted by Lynne

    We are so sorry to hear that the centre has closed as we had planned to visit again in January. We found the centre to be vital in learning about the ocean of the Cook Islands and hope that it will open in a new location.

  • Comment Link Randall Nelson Tuesday, 07 November 2017 16:20 posted by Randall Nelson

    Great work to keep such a marvelous education centre open for 17 years - especially to Ellina and Mike Tavioni, Nan Hauser and not least, Sheryl and Huw John. Can't forget the many students and employees to keep the place cost effective with a passion. (Even had Matariki there!) I can only hope that everything in this centre is amplified larger in another place soon. This represents stewardship of the people of the Cook Islands on marine education and preservation!

  • Comment Link Nan Hauser Tuesday, 07 November 2017 13:02 posted by Nan Hauser

    Surprised to see this article! There is no truth to it! The Whale Education Centre is still very much an entity and we are changing our face and focus to do more outreach and update the public as to our most recent amazing projects. We will also include a laboratory where the children, schools, tourists and public will be able to watch us do our science. With 55 scientific published papers by Hauser, it has been a wonderful experience learning about the whales in the Cook Islands. We will be sharing all of the exciting findings. The Cook Islands Whale Research Project will be expanding our research to the Northern Group and to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area in Kiribati! We are headed to Oman in a couple of weeks where their population of Humpbacks exists with only 80 humpbacks left.! Very sad but exciting to go to new frontiers! Watch for the changes at the centre and we'll have a great celebration when we open the doors with a whole new look!!

  • Comment Link Adell Tuesday, 07 November 2017 12:29 posted by Adell

    So very sad to hear this. Was there in october 2017 it was beautiful.

  • Comment Link Jo Taylor-Kupu Tuesday, 07 November 2017 11:14 posted by Jo Taylor-Kupu

    I think loosing this much loved tourist and local attraction is a travesty . During my 15 months with Esther Honey besides building Sheryl and Hew an Avery and donating it to them they cared for a ‘lot’ of birds we sent there with huge success.
    I personally think the Centre was an absolute asset and hope that either Shery and Hew or someone equally passionate with reopen in a new building .

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