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Tongareva - A Remote Paradise In The South Pacific


Tongareva(or Penrhyn Island) is a huge atoll located 537 nautical miles south of the equator. It is located 190 nautical miles east of Rakahanga, 325 miles west of Vostok, 235 miles southeast of Starbuck, and 649 miles south of Christmas Island. The anchorage at Omoka is almost exactly 9 degrees south, making it a suitable site for seamen to check their instruments.

The atoll is 12 miles N.W. and S.E. in length and 6 to 8 miles broad. The rim stretches for roughly 40 km. The protected lagoon is roughly 108 square kilometers but is heavily forested with reefs and coral heads.

The rim is mostly covered with low sand and coral islets, with the land reaching a height of about 14 feet and the tops of coconut palms, pandanus, and other low trees reaching around 50 feet. The land area is stated to be 4,000 acres.

There are three deep enough passes through the rim to allow ships to pass. The Teahua or west pass, located less than a mile north of Omoka hamlet, is the best of these. This has 15 feet of water for a 100-yard width and depths of at least 20 feet in the center. A powerful tidal stream goes out for 7.1/2 hours and then back in for the next 4.1/2 hours, twice a day, reaching speeds of 3 or 4 knots.

The Sekelangi, or northwest pass, is 700 yards wide but is so blocked by coral heads that it requires the services of a local pilot and is impassable in bad weather. It, as well as the Takuha or northeast pass, will allow vessels with a draft of less than 12 feet. During the typical trade wind season, this last pass is exposed, with large breakers and a 5 knot current.

For vessels too large to access the lagoon, there is anchorage off the west side. During hurricane season, the lagoon provides one of the few safe havens in this region for smaller ships. Ships can navigate the lagoon by keeping an eye out for reefs and coral heads, which are easily apparent in strong sunlight. Omoka village has its own wharf.

A sunken reef with roughly 2 fathoms (12 feet) of water over it three miles off the northeast corner is named after the barque Flying Venus, which was wrecked there on September 6, 1889.

Tongareva, which means "floating Tonga," was given to the atoll by the Polynesian discoverers. In Bishop Museum Bulletin 99, 1932, Dr. Peter H. Buck examines the culture and traditions of the original population. They are said to have come to Tongareva from Manihiki, but their darker color and unusual speech have led to claims that they are of separate stock.

The British ship Lady Penrhyn, Captain Sever, made the atoll known to Europeans after Lieutenant Watts spotted it on August 9, 1788. Captain Otto von Kotzebue of the exploring ship Rurick visited the atoll on April 30, 1816, and provided an early scientific account of the island. On November 6, 1830, William Endicott describes an interaction between Indians and the crew of the commerce ship Glide.

On February 15, 1841, the schooner Porpoise transported members of the United States Exploring Expedition to the atoll. In 1853, the American clipper ship Chatham was wrecked on the SW islet. In his book "Wild Life Among the Pacific Islanders," published in London in 1867, E.H. Lamont provides a fascinating and pictorial description of its crew's experiences.

Peruvian slavers nearly depopulated the settlements in 1864. It is estimated that at least 1,000 men, women, and children were transported from this island to South America. In 1854, native pastors of the London Missionary Society brought Christianity to Rarotonga.

The new religion was enthusiastically received, and the villagers immediately eager to erect churches. The promise of good remuneration and safe return from slavers was an opportunity to raise funds for churches. However, the majority of the indigenous peoples died in exile, effectively as slaves.

Despite French attempts to integrate Tongareva in the governance of the Society Islands, trade with Rarotonga resulted in a loose British protectorate. Officers of H.M.S. Egeria declared actual annexation to the British Empire in the spring of 1889. Tongareva was transferred to New Zealand's Cook Islandsadministration on June 10, 1901, via proclamation issued in Auckland.

The native population fell from 420 in 1906 to 326 in 1916, but has subsequently steadily increased to 462 in 1936, when there were also five Europeans on the island. They dwell in two villages: Omoka on the west side of the lagoon and Tautua on the east side, nine miles across the lagoon. Each location has an L.M.S. school. Each village has a reliable water supply provided by concrete tanks.

There is no severe crime, and health care is generally adequate. Unfortunately, several Indians have developed leprosy. On the tiny island north of Omoka called Motu Unga, and by some called Molokai, a leper hospital and receiving station has been erected for them and lepers from other surrounding atolls.

Tongareva's main goods include copra, pearl and pipi shells, and traditional craftsmanship. When the price of copra has been so low in recent years, only about one-third of the coconuts have been dried, with the rest being utilized for human consumption or fed to pigs.

Copra shipments fell from 173 tons in 1932 to 35 tons in 1935 before rebounding to 135 tons in 1937. Coconuts have been harmed by large lizards and rodents. The lagoon has been strewn with pearl shells and pipi shells.


A radio station was constructed on June 23, 1937, and visitors to the atoll include trading schooners from Rarotonga and government ships. Templeton Crocker's yacht Zaca was one of these, with an expedition to gather material and notes for a marine exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in September 1936.

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About The Authors

Jane Resture

Jane Resture- Since she embarked on her first world trip in 2002, Jane Resture spent the past decades sharing her personal journey and travel tips with people around the world. She has traveled to over 80 countries and territories, where she experienced other cultures, wildlife she had only read about in books, new foods, new people, and new amazing experiences. Jane believes that travel is for everyone and it helps us learn about ourselves and the world around us. Her goal is to help more people from more backgrounds experience the joy of exploration because she trusts that travel opens the door to the greatest, most unforgettable experiences life can offer and this builds a kinder, more inclusive, more open-minded world.

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