As local people say in the Cook Islands “May you live long” (“Kia Orana”) and take your chance to visit this hidden pearl of the South Pacific Ocean. Here you will have a chance either to set off on an underwater journey among colorful reef fish, sharks, and rays if you are a beginner or to explore the underwater channels, drop-offs, wrecks, and deep blue diving with Marlin, Mahi-Mahi, Wahoo, and occasional Humpback Whale.
Nestled between French Polynesia, Fiji, and New Zealand, there are 15 islands and 2 reefs in the South Pacific Ocean which make the Cook Islands. There are no neighbouring islands to the south of them; the next closest land is Antarctica. The Cook Islands is an exclusive economic zone in free association with New Zealand.
The Archipelago is usually subdivided into Northern Cook Islands consisting of Pukapuka, Manihiki, Penrhyn, Rakahanga, Nassau, and Suwarrow, and Southern Cook Islands consisting of Atiu, Mitiaro, Mangaia, Takutea, Palmerston, Manuae, Mauke, Aitutaki, and Rarotonga. The latter two are the biggest islands where most of life is concentrated including Ararua which is the capital of the Islands.
Rarotonga International Airport provides a connection with New Zealand (Auckland), Australia (Sydney), Fiji, and USA (Los Angeles). The main airlines servicing the Cook Islands are Air New Zealand, Pacific Blue, and Air Tahiti. Local flights between the islands are serviced by Air Rarotonga. The flight between Rarotonga and Aitutaki takes about 50 minutes.
The main ports are located in Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Penrhyn, Pukapuka, and Atiu. Cruising vessels from Tahiti often stop at the Cook Islands.
Before arriving you need to arrange a booking of an accommodation for at least 1 night to avoid any risk of being refused to enter the Islands. When departing, you will be requested to pay a tax of 55 NZD (~37USD) for adults and 25NZD (~17USD) for children between 2 and 11 years. The departure tax is to be paid at the airport.
The main diving areas at the Cook Islands are Rarotonga and Aitutaki (Arutanga) Islands featuring more than 40 dive sites. Rarotonga Island is protected by the surrounding lagoon that is why these shallow waters offer great relaxed diving. Many people choose this location to start their scuba adventure. The main reasons for this are warm sea, great visibility, and plenty of marine life to explore already during the first dives. You’d better plan at least 5 days in order to finalize Open Water Diver training.
The lagoon extends to the outer reef which drops off into the abyss. Dive sites near channels and outer reefs are recommended only for experienced divers due to strong currents.
The northern coast of Rarotonga Island features best coral growth while the southern coast is the best place for wall diving with its drop-offs. Diving at the southern dive sites fully depends on weather conditions, and sometimes these sites cannot be accessed due to the strong winds and rough sea. The western side of the Island can be explored for tunnels, caves, caverns, and swim-throughs. You can also enjoy several wrecks around the Island. Due to its remote location from the main Island, Aitutaki offers a unique opportunity to dive in small groups as you will hardly encounter crowds on the Island. The reef profile is very similar to the one around Rarotonga.
Currently, there are 4 dive shops at Rarotonga and 2 dive operators at Aitutaki. Divers are usually picked-up from their accommodations in the morning. The equipment is assembled at the dive centre and it is loaded into the boat. The trip lasts about 4 hours with 2 dives and a surface interval with snacks and soft drinks. The boats leave either from the harbors or right from the beach if sea conditions permit to do it.
Divers need to control their depths and surface intervals as there is no decompression chamber on the Islands. The nearest chamber is located in New Zealand.
Currently, there are no liveaboards offering itineraries around the Cook Islands.
Best Dive Sites Overview
Wreck of SS Mai Tai
Located on the northern coast SS Mai Tai is the most famous wreck in the Cook Islands. She used to be a 105m (344ft.) long British steam cargo ship. While travelling from San Francisco to Wellington in December 1916 she hit the reef and sank near Avarua Harbor. Now the wreck lies at the depth of 10m (32ft.), but it can be dived only when the sea is calm. The engine block sticks out of the water so it is easy to identify the location of the wreck. Pieces of the wreck are found over a large area and from time to time some artifacts are being found. Marine life here is represented by Morays, Nudibranch, Moorish Idol, Pufferfish, and Emperor Angelfish.
This dive site is located in the southern part of Rarotonga. It is recommended only for advanced divers. The average depth here is 18-40m (59-131ft.). You can follow the sandy channel which will lead you to the incredible drop-off. The steepness of the wall amazes especially with the deep blue abyss below. It is common to see here Whitetip Reef Shark, Turtle, Tuna, Eagle Ray, and Lionfish. This is the place where Parrotfish are usually seen mating.
Another southern diving destination is Avaavaroa Passage which is located not far from Avaavaroa Drop-off. You can expect the depth between 12-24m (39-78ft.) here. This long passage usually has the strongest currents in the Cook Islands. Nevertheless, these currents explain the presence of big pelagic. This is the best place to spot Blacktip and Whitetip Reef Sharks and schools of Eagle Rays which can total up to 40 rays at the same time. Between April and middle of August, you can spot many Grey Reef Sharks here. Besides Trevally, Damselfish, Gold-lines Sea Bream, you can also see Morays and Green Sea Turtles here.
Matavera Wall is located in the eastern part of Rarotonga. The site usually starts in the shallow area where you can enjoy plenty of reef fish and invertebrates. Then you reach another spectacular wall which starts at 12m (39ft.) and breaks into the deep. Visibility is usually excellent here, so you can spot Whitetip and Blacktip Reef Shark, Eagle Ray, Moray, and Turtle passing by.
The dive site is also referred to as Blackrock Tunnels and The Maze. It is located on the western coast of Rarotonga and it is a shallow dive with the maximum depth of 10m (32ft.). It features unique seascape with caves and a tunnel stretching between the other 2 dive spots in this area. There are crustaceans here including Lobster, Shrimp, Coconut Crab as well as Lionfish and Nudibranch. Occasional Whitetip Reef Shark and Eagle Ray pass through these dive sites.
Arutanga Passage and Black Rock
These are 2 nearby dive sites which are located at Aitutaki. Maximum depth here is 31m (101ft.). They can be found at the end of Arutanga Passage. You will be met by Napoleon, Turtle, Surgeonfish, Parrotfish, Emperor Angelfish, and Sunset Wrasse. There is also a wreck of an old barge at Black Rock dive site.
Experienced divers can be offered to try diving right into the blue. Such dives are usually made at one of the fish aggregating floating devices which are installed in the northern, eastern and western parts around Rarotonga. These devices are moored to the deep bottom. They suppose to attract small and big pelagic. If you are lucky you might see Tuna, Trevally, Mahi-Mahi, and even Humpback Whale during their migrations.
Best Dive Season
The visibility is very good all the year round in the Cook Islands. If you prefer warm water, then it is recommended to visit the Islands between July and December.
Whether you are attracted by predators like Grey Reef Sharks, you’d better plan a trip between April and middle of August.
Humpback Whales visit the Islands between July and October.
It is possible to dive all the year round at the Cook Islands, though you should take into consideration the rainy season which lasts from November to March. Occasional hurricanes are possible during this time as well. The lowest water temperature can be witnessed during August, it stays around 23-24ºC (73-75ºF). The warmest water is in December when it reaches 29ºC (84ºF).
Average visibility is 20-25m (65-82ft.), and it can be more than 40m (131ft.) at some dive spots.
Strong currents are present near channels as well as in some areas exposed to the deep waters like in the southern part of Rarotonga.
Angelfish, Surgeonfish, and Parrotfish are the prevailing species of fish around the Cook Islands. The latter two can be seen in huge schools up to 100 fish. Morays, Nudibranch, Coconut Crabs, Shrimps, Lobsters, Damselfish, Pufferfish, Golden-lined Sea Bream, Emperor Angelfish, Moorish Idol, and Lionfish are also common to see.
It is possible to encounter Barred Snake-eel and Spotted Snake-eel. Among the big pelagic you can expect Whitetip Reef Shark, Blacktip Reef Shark, Green Sea Turtle, Napoleon, Barracuda, Trevally, Tuna, and in some areas Grey Reef Shark. Eagle Rays are often seen around the Islands, sometimes their schools are huge.
If you are diving in the deep blue, it is possible to spot Manta Ray, Marlin, Mahi-Mahi, Hammerhead Shark, and even Humpback Whale.
In some areas around Rarotonga, you might see some dead corals. No one is sure why the colony of corals disappeared in 1970’s, though fishermen remember a large amount of Crown of Thorns seen around the Island. They can be found on the reefs these days as well. Some people consider chemicals which were used during agricultural processes on the Island to be the main reason for the destruction of corals. Nevertheless, you can observe many new corals. They are rather small but indicating the recovery of the reefs.
As dive centres are located on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, it is best to choose accommodation on one of these islands. Aitutaki features luxury and secluded resorts while at Rarotonga you will find boutique hotels, luxury resorts as well as several budget lodgings. You should take into consideration that camping is not allowed on the Cook Islands.
Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa
This beach-front resort is located in one of the world’s most beautiful lagoons. Such celebrities as Gary Grant, Catriona Rowntree, and Marlon Brando were the guests of this paradise Resort. Aitutaki Lagoon welcomes guests above 16 years. You can stay at one of 36 Bungalows, 14 of which have the beachfront location. There is also a Royal Honeymoon Pool Villa. Each Bungalow has an open-air shower, tea/coffee facilities, a private veranda, a mini refrigerator, and bathrobes. WiFi is available in all Bungalows. There is Spa, bar and grill, and a restaurant on site. The Resort offers daily complimentary activities like stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, free snorkelling classes and equipment, hula dancing classes, and many others.
Pacific Resort Aitutaki
This is a multi-award winning boutique beachfront Resort offering 27 luxurious Bungalows and Villas. Some of the Bungalows have 2 bedrooms and they can accommodate up to 6 persons. All Bungalows and Villas have an indoor and an open-air shower and a sun deck. There are a bay restaurant and a café on the territory of the Resort. Breakfast is usually included in the price of the accommodation. Those wishing to relax can take beauty and therapy treatments at the Spa. Bonefishing and Kiteboarding are offered to the guests besides diving and snorkelling.
Etu Moana Boutique Beach Villas
Etu Moana Resort is owned and managed by 2 dive instructors. This boutique Resort uses solar energy and provides guests with high quality filtered water. There are 10 wooden Villas where you can choose beachfront location, pool, garden or lagoon view. The accommodation rate includes breakfast, drinking water, snorkelling gear, BBQ facilities, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, yoga classes, and airport transfers.
These self-contained holiday homes and townhouses are located near Muri Beach on Rarotonga Island. Each apartment has a fully-equipped kitchen, a private bathroom, a living area, and a sundeck. Some of the apartments have a private swimming pool. Any type of water or land activity can be arranged by the staff of the Resort.
Crown Beach Resort & Spa
The Resort can be found in the western part of Rarotonga. Accommodation is offered in luxurious Villas and Suites each with lounge and entertainment area, and outdoor sun deck. Most of the lodgings feature a kitchen and some of them have private pools. On the site, you can find a Spa, 2 restaurants, diving centre, gym, and a pool. The Resort welcomes only adult guests.
Heliconia Hideaway offer luxurious private accommodation in Beach Villa or Pandanus Beach House in the south-western part of Rarotonga. The Villa is built in the style of traditional Polynesian Pavilion with wooden floors and vaulted ceiling. There are a private patio, bathroom, and an open-air shower. The House has 2 bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, large lounge and dining areas, kitchen, patios, and a garden. The guests are provided with free kayaks, paddleboards, and snorkelling gear.
Sea Change Villas
The winner of several awards, this Resort features 9 Villas either with 1, 2 or 3 bedrooms in the southern part of Rarotonga. Each Villa has a patio, a private pool, a bathroom, and a home theatre system. The guests benefit from complimentary snorkeling equipment, stand up paddleboards, kayaks, bicycles, and CD/DVD library.
Other Activities For Non-Divers
The best snorkeling sites around Rarotonga are located in Tikioki next to Takitumu Villas, Muri Beach, and in the southern part of the Island next to Titikaveka. Care should be taken when snorkeling in the southern spots as there can be strong currents, especially near the passages. At Aitutaki, the main lagoon is the best place for snorkeling. It is full of giant Clams and colorful reefs with fish. Daily snorkelling trips can be organized by local operators.
Fishing is very popular in the Cook Islands because the abyss starts right behind the reef of Rarotonga. There are several operators which offer daily trips for fly-fishing and deep sea game fishing. Fishing is possible on the year-round basis and you can target such pelagic as Marlin, Mahi-Mahi, Tuna, and Wahoo.
Whales and Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre
Yearly Humpback Whales arrive at the Cook Islands to give birth to calves between July and August. They rest and wait until calves become stronger till October-November before starting off. It is common to spot whales during the watching tours or right from the islands. Sometimes you can spot not only Humpback Whales but also Short-Finned Pilot Whale, Sperm Whale, Blainville’s Beaked Whales, and Culver’s Beaked Whale.
If you wish to see live creatures, to learn more about whales as well as other ocean inhabitants, then Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre at Rarotonga is worth visiting. The Centre was established by a famous marine biologist Nan Hauser, specializing in Whale research.