American Jess Cramp has secured funding, equipment and the blessing of the Penrhyn Island Council to study sharks around the atoll, but now finds herself unable to get there.
And the PhD student is not alone, with several islanders holed up at the Tongareva Hostel anxiously awaiting news of the next trip north.
Although the island was visited by two boats before Christmas there is currently no word on when the next cargo vessel will leave Rarotonga.
A government shipping subsidy has been announced to try and develop a more reliable service, but so far no money has been allocated.
“We planned for delays, but this has really pushed home but the true difficulties that the people from the northern group experience,” said Cramp. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we expected to be able to get there.
“I realise that I am a low priority considering what the people in the north need. But it’s frustrating and it has pushed back my studies by several months.”
Cramp has spent time studying the shark populations around Rarotonga and Aitutaki and has secured funding to continue her research in Penrhyn, which is famous for its population of the marine predators.
“I believe that we will get the work done but the stress levels are high. The community has opened their arms to us and we are excited to go there and see all the sharks that people talk about.
“Fortunately the funding is not in jeopardy. We just need to have a little faith,” she said, but added that the agencies that had paid out to support her were expecting her to go.
Cramp said that shipping companies would not sail to the island until there was enough cargo to make the trip worthwhile, which makes planning incredibly difficult.
Meanwhile, others find themselves in the same situation as Cramp. Penrhyn Islander Ru Taime, who is staying at Tongareva Hostel, said he had been on Rarotonga for four months and was desperate to get home.
“We are just waiting and waiting and it is hard to take,” he said.
“My family are there and I have got a job up there, but I am still stuck on this side. It is very frustrating for us.
“I expected to go home in January or early this month, but there is no news on when the next boat will go. I am here with my wife and daughter, and my son and his family. We are all waiting to go.”
He said the irregular service to Penrhyn was a major problem for the island. “It is hard for us. The cost of freight is high and it costs so much to go as a passenger.”
Although Penrhyn has an airport, the schedule remains irregular and journey is even more expensive than it would be by ship.
For researcher Cramp, travel by air is also out of the question because of the amount of equipment she needs to take.
The delays have even prompted her to look into chartering a boat, but the cost has proved prohibitive.
“The research is paid for by grants. We are spending that money on the science and on educating Cook Islanders involved in the project. It is not possible to raise another $30,000 to $80,000 to charter a vessel.”
Now she is hoping that police vessel Te Kukupa will help out on at least one leg of the journey.
Once she gets there she will study oceanic white-tip and silky sharks in the waters around the atoll.
Cramp will speak to local fishermen, use baited underwater cameras to film the sharks and also tag the predators.
Her research in the southern group has thrown up some interesting findings, with shark and ray numbers in Aitutaki rivalling the highest in the world.