Suwarrow Atoll National Park
Suwarrow, the largest national park of the Cook Islands, is an uninhabited remote atoll situated in the Northern Cook Islands. Suwarrow (or Suvarov) lies roughly 800 kilometres northwest of Rarotonga and as such falls at the centre of the 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands. The islets fringe around a lagoon of about 10km across. The small land mass total area is a mere 0.4 sq km.
|Suwarrow Atoll (ortho.linz.govt.nz)|
The reef islets of Suwarrow atoll lie like pearls strung around a vibrant lagoon. Described by Robert Louis Stevenson's wife as 'the most romantic island in the world,' the motu (islets) which make up Suwarrow are small but have a history rich beyond their size.
From ghosts of Spanish soldiers, through murder and mayhem, to a hide-out for German raiders during World War One, Suwarrow has for centuries provided the stuff of romance and an idyllic breeding ground for seabirds and turtles.
Suwarrow became known around the world in the late 1960s through the exploits of New Zealander Tom Neale, who for decades called the island home before he died in 1977. His account of his solitary life on Suwarrow, An Island to Oneself, became an international best-seller.
|A statue of Tom Neil on Suwarrow Island||A view of Suwarrow landing|
Suwarrow lies in the hurricane belt and its creatures have to contend with occasional cyclones. There has never really been a permanent Polynesian settlement on the atoll, probably due to the land area being too small to maintain a population and because of its vulnerability to storms – the highest point is only three metres above sea level.
An Important Bird Area
Its colorful history aside, Suwarrow is an important sea-bird breeding site not only for the Cook Islands but for the region and the world. Eleven species of seabirds breed on the island. It supports regionally significant colonies of Lesser Frigatebirds (9% of world population), Red-tailed tropic birds (3% of world population) and the Cook Islands only large colony of Sooty Terns. Excessive harvesting of Sooty Terns on Penrhyn (the only other island in the Cooks that have these birds) has reduced the population there. Although these birds are widespread, what is astonishing is that Suwarrow has the largest congregation of Lesser Frigatebirds in the South Pacific.
The atoll also supports locally significant colonies of Red-footed Boobies, Great Frigate birds, Masked boobies and Brown Boobies. In addition it is an important wintering site for Alaskan migrant the Vulnerable Bristle-thigh Curlew.
|Juvenile Red Footed Booby||A colony of birds on Suwarrow Atoll||Great Frigate Bird|
The diversity and abundance of species is an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. The diversity and abundance of these seabird species is due to Suwarrow being uninhabited. On land, in their breeding colonies, seabirds are sensitive to human interference because of their habit of establishing a nest on the ground, or in a low-set shrub.
In recognition of its wildlife, the Cook Islands Government declared Suwarrow a National Park in 1978 under section 11 (1) of the Conservation Act 1975.
Marine Life and other species
To date, there has been no in-depth marine survey undertaken on Suwarrow. As far as is known, there are no endemic marine species found in its waters. However, an important fact about the marine environment is that it is unexploited at present. Thus, Suwarrow contains an array of marine life including pelagic species in the lagoon waters of the atoll. Green turtles nest on the sandy shores and there is a large population of coconut crabs. Both of which are classified as endangered. A well-known visitor to Suwarrow's ocean is the Humpback whale.
Ship rats are a major threat on the island of Suwarrow. If not controlled, or not exterminated, the shiprat will spell the end of seabirds or radically accelerate their existing decline on the island. In 2003, a group of Environmentalists visited the island of Suwarrow for the purpose of eradicating the rats on the island. However, there is no report on the success of the eradication program.
|Accomodation for the island caretakers||A sign that speaks for itself!||Footpath on Suwarrow Atoll|
To help ensure Suwarrow is maintained and people cause least amount of disruption to the environment, caretakers (employed by the National Environment Service) live on Suwarrow during the off cyclone season. The caretakers monitor visiting yachts, ensuring the protection of the lagoon and island environment and maintain the accomodation on the island.