The low morning sun is streaming across calm water in the pass as we arrive at Suwarrow, six days out from Bora Bora. I´ve been wanting to come here for years.
Suwarrow is an uninhabited South Pacific atoll far from anywhere. Its isolation and the promise of pristine coral reefs and motus are part of the appeal, but it´s also a bit of a personal pilgrimage, closing a circle opened in 2006.
Tucked into a biography of legendary French sailor Bernard Moitessier was a story of his passage to Suwarrow to meet with Tom Neale, a New Zealander living alone on the atoll. Neale had written a book about his time on the island, titled appropriately An Island to Oneself. I decided I had to find a copy.
Getting hold of the book wasn´t easy back in 2006. It was out of print, and wasn´t on any online book sites, but eventually I did find it in an eBay auction. I devoured the book during a single Eurostar train journey from Brussels to London.
Tom Neale was a strange character. I now know that the book tells a partial version of his life. In it he muses about his need for solitude, and wonders whether it might be worthwhile to ´take a woman´ along but decides not to, as he dislikes the idea of her being on the island if she became ´disagreeable´ to him. In fact, he was married and had a son, but he never mentions them, and obviously didn´t bring them to Suwarrow. Both are still alive and living on Palmerston Atoll. The book is ghost written, quite skilfully, but between the lines Neale comes across as difficult, a world class misanthrope with contempt for almost everyone, especially for women.
His personal failings apart, Neale did do something extraordinary on Suwarrow. His two multiyear periods on the island between 1952 and 1977 represent a kind of last stand of someone choosing to live according to their own rules on (more or less) unclaimed land. Neale’s life on the island was simple and pure, and more than a little difficult, but he found a peace and serenity in living alone with nature. The small memorial to him outside his hut on Anchorage Island is well deserved.
He was inspired to go there by American writer Robert Frisbee. Frisbee lived for a short time on Suwarrow with his wife and children, and weathered a cyclone on the island, tying his children to palm trees to stop them being blown away. His book Island of Desire is another south seas classic.
A half hour later we´re anchored safely inside the atoll with four other boats. It is a special place. The sublime beauty of the lagoon and the motus, the sea and the sky, the fish and sharks and crabs, the green of the trees and the white sand beaches merge together with the human history of Suwarrow to form a special energy. One feels unquestionably part of earth (there’s no feeling of being ‘at the end of the earth’), yet one is a long way away from ‘civilisation’.
Frisbee and Neale both describe arriving at Suwarrow as an extraordinary experience, full of multicoloured corals and alive with legions of fish. No longer.
All across the Pacific we´ve seen graveyards of skeletal grey coral instead of vibrant reefs full of colour. This is coral bleaching. It feels like snorkelling in a post-capitalist dystopia, a post apocalyptic “nuclear winter” of the reefs. It´s heartbreaking.
While there are occasional exceptions, in general the state of coral in the South Pacific is dreadfully bad. Most of these places are so remote that direct pollution (e.g. agricultural run off, sunscreen) is not the reason for the bleaching. It is the change in the temperature and acidity of seawater, a direct consequence of anthropogenic climate change.
Already I feel privileged to see any coral that is not dead. The best coral I´ve seen in the 7,500 miles we´ve sailed this year was in Nomuka-iti, Tonga last month. It felt truly exciting to see the beauty of live coral, with some colours and interesting shapes. Later, though, I reflected on the “moving baseline” effect- How does what I saw it compare to my memory of El Garrafon, off Isla Mujeres, Mexico, on my first dive back in 1995? And I wonder how El Garrafon in 1995 compared to Suwarrow in the 1950s.
Of course It could be that Frisbee and Neale were overly gushing in their descriptions. It could be that my memory of El Garrafon is exaggerated. But … no one could write extravagant prose or build technicolour memories from the wasteland of coral reefs of today.
Bit by bit the ideology of neoliberalism is dismantling our natural world. In Island of Desire the boat captain who delivers Frisbee to Suwarrow muses about his plans to create a luxury hotel on the atoll. The idea continues to this day. It is only the Cook Islands Government designating Suwarrow a national park that keeps exploitation at bay.
As a national park there are severe restrictions on activities. The only island that one can land on is Anchorage Island – all other motus are reserved for bird life and native animals.
On Anchorage Island, animals may not be brought ashore (Emma remained on Otra Vida the whole time of our visit), the same for plants and seeds, and yachts are asked to ensure that shoes, etc, are cleaned of any soil prior to landing. Trash cannot be taken ashore, nor (obviously) thrown into the water. Cleaning of the underwater hull of the boat is forbidden, to stop any non-native sea plants or animals being introduced into the lagoon.
In practice to visit Suwarrow it is necessary to arrive in one’s own sailboat and to sleep on board. There are no facilities on Anchorage island beyond a small hut for the two caretakers, no possibilities for accommodation. Camping is prohibited.
So in practice there is a huge barrier to experiencing Suwarrow. It is different to the purely economic barrier to visiting Tetiaroa, a fairly pristine atoll a day sail to the north of Tahiti, where a week’s stay at the Brando Resort runs to more than the median annual income in most countries of the world.
It feels sad that these enormous barriers are necessary to maintain a natural state on a few spots on the planet. Bit by bit the last remaining holdouts of pure nature are being transformed into money. Money – a set of electronic records in a computer system. And literally we transform the earth into this … one time destruction, vandalism almost, of natural bounty in order to change some numbers in a computer.
So I support the Suwarrow national park. And, with heavy heart and a not entirely good taste in my mouth, I support the extremely elitist operation at Tetiaroa as better than a more accessible alternative. Because at this late stage anything that stands in the way of development/destruction is to be welcomed.