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Travel Story

The Blue Lagoon of Aitutaki

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Donning snorkels and flippers we pushed off the edge of the sandbar where the water drops steeply to a depth of about three metres. Huge dark coral heads rise from the pure white, light-rippled bottom, to within half a metre of the surface. The first thing I saw were three giant clams the size of toilet bowls, their interlocking shells agape as they sucked water through siphons twice the diameter of garden hoses. "Get a foot in one of them an you're gonna miss the boat," warns Captain M.

I watch a huge moray eel weave its way up the sloping edge of the bar, snatch one of the tuna carcasses away from the smaller fish and drag it to the bottom. Each coral head seems to be the domain of a different species of fish, a myriad different colours, patterns, and shapes. I could have spent the day there but I heard the motor start and we were off to One Foot Island.

In the open-sided thatched hut, where our lunch was already simmering on the grill, Captain M changed hats and became the immigration officer. He put the official stamp of One Foot Island on our passports and told us the sad origin of the island's name. Fleeing from a group of warriors a father and son landed on the island and fled inland. But as they entered the beach the dad stepped carefully in his son's tracks, leaving only one set of prints. The father was hunted down and killed. Believing there was no one else on the island the raiders left and the son survived.

After lunch I walked along the beach where the palms were loaded with green coconuts and ripe ones littered the ground. When the first people arrived here it was the coconut palm, the Polynesian "tree of life" that provided an abundance of nourishing food and drink, material to build and thatch shelters; fibre for ropes, lines, clothing and sails. Here and there along the beach new sprouts have begun to spring from partly buried nuts – a reminder that sometime in the distant past that is how it all began. A coconut from some distant island washed up on the shore of a new island, took root, multiplied and was there when that first boat load of people arrived. But as I looked across the lagoon to the main island, only about 10 kilometres away yet barely visible above the horizon, I pondered the odds against a coconut, or a dugout canoe, ever finding these tiny havens of land in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.