Submerged volcanoes and coral atolls
The geological landscape of the 15 islands making up the Cook Island group range from low lying coral atolls surrounded by outer reefs encircling turquoise lagoons in the northern group, to the verdant jungle clad peaks of Rarotonga and raised makatea coral islands of four of the southern group islands. All of our 15 islands were formed through volcanic activity. Over time, a number of the islands sank below sea level, leaving a coral rim to form the distinctive lagoons the northern group are known for. In contrast the southern group islands make up nearly 90% of the landmass in the entire group. While Rarotonga is considered only a young island in geological terms, a number of the Cook Islands have existed for a very long time. Mangaia, the most southerly in the group is considered to be the oldest island in the entire South Pacific.
Tropical plants, flowers and birds
While famous for its variety of tropical flora – the Cook Islands support over 400 different plant species, among them the Frangipani (Tipani), Bougainvillea (Taria), and the profusely scented Gardenia (Tiare Maori) – surprisingly very few of these colourful plants are native to the islands and most were introduced, including the resplendent orange-red flowered Flame Tree, a native of South America. There are however many native plants to be seen as well, especially in the mountainous central area of Rarotonga sometimes referred to as cloud forest. Once, a greater proliferation and range of endemic birds existed in the forest regions of the islands, but with the introduction of the predatory black (ships) rat and the Indian mynah bird – brought in as a means to control coconut stick insects, as well as the sale of birds and feathers to collectors in the Victorian era, the native bird population suffered serious declines on many islands. Some remaining birds of interest include the Cook Islands Fruit Dove, the Mangaia Kingfisher and the Rarotonga Flycatcher. The island of Atiu is the best for bird-watching!
Spectacular marine life
Within the sheltered lagoons of the Cook Islands live tropical fish and sea life of all colors and shapes, from the vivid-blue Starfish which can be seen easily in the shallows near shore, to the colourful green and pink Parrot Fish, curious yellow Butterfly Fish, Moray Eels and others you will see as soon as you lower your snorkel mask into the warm waters. In the temperate ocean waters beyond the reef edge diverse and spectacular marine life flourishes with different species of sea turtle, Green, Hawks bill, and Loggerhead Turtle all regularly sighted outside the reef, as well as eagle rays, butterfly fish and reef sharks. The Cook Islands is well known as a wonderful location for divers but to truly admire impressive sea creatures, the months from July to October during the austral winter are the best time to catch the migratory visits of the Humpback Whales, as they pass close by on their seasonal journey to the Antarctic.