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Aerial View of Pukapuka Atoll
Map of Pukapuka Atoll

Pukapuka is a coral atoll in the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean, with three small islets threaded on a reef, which encloses a beautifully clear lagoon. It is one of the most remote islands of the Cook Islands, situated about 1140 kilometres northwest of Rarotonga. It is a triangular atoll with three islets comprising little more than 3 square kilometres of land area, yet on this small island an ancient culture and distinct language developed over many centuries. Archaeologists have recently discovered evidence of human settlement as early as approximately 2,000 years ago, and the closest prehistoric associations appear to be with Samoa and other islands to the west. The old name for the atoll was Te Ulu-o-Te-Watu ('the head of the stone'), and the northern islet where the people normally reside is affectionately known as Wale (Home).


European visitors

Pukapuka has the distinction of being the first of the Cook Islands to be sighted by Europeans. The Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana saw it on Saint Bernard's day, Sunday 20 August, 1595 and named it San Bernardo.

Of the inhabited islands in the Cook group, Pukapuka is probably the most isolated. On 21 June, 1765 the British Naval expedition under Commodore John Byron ("Dolphin" and "Tamar") sighted the island. He gave the name "Islands of Danger" because of the high surf that made it too dangerous to land. The name "Danger Island" still appears on some maps. (It should not be confused with Danger Island of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.)

Thirty years later, Pukapuka was given the name "Isles de la Loutre" (Isles of the Otter) by Pierre-Francois Peron, the first mate on board the American merchant ship, "Otter" (Captain Ebenezer Dorr) when it was sighted on 3 April, 1796. The following day, Peron and a small party landed ashore but the inhabitants did not allow them to inspect the island. Trading took place near the ship as adzes, mats and other artifacts were exchanged for knives and European goods.

Due to its isolation, few vessels visited it before 1857 when the London Missionary Society landed teachers from Rarotonga and Aitutaki. In 1862, Rev. Wyatt W. Gill found most of the people on the island converted to Christianity. Peruvian slavers raided the island in early 1863 and took away a total of 145 men and women; only two returned. The English missionary barque "John Williams" was wrecked on the west side in May 1864.[1]

World War II

Three downed U.S. Navy fliers landed on Pukapuka in February 1942. Harold Dixon, Gene Aldrich, and Tony Pastula survived 34 days on the open ocean in a tiny 4 by 8 foot (1.2 by 2.4 m) raft, beginning their odyssey with no food or water stores and very few tools. Shortly after their arrival a typhoon struck the island. Their story has been called "…unquestionably one of the most grueling and fantastic ordeals of World War II."[2]


Pukapuka is shaped like a three bladed fan. There are three islets on the roughly triangular reef. Motu Ko, the biggest island is to the southeast; Motu Kotawa (Frigate Bird Island) is to the southwest; and the main island Wale is to the north. Ko and Kotawa are uninhabited and are used for growing food. The airport is on Ko.

The three villages are located on the crescent-shaped bay of the northernmost islet of the atoll: Yato (Leeward), Loto (Central) and Ngake (East). Loto (Roto on some older maps) is the seat of the Pukapuka Island Administration. The traditional names for these villages are Takanumi, Kotipolo and Te Langaikula. In daily life, the islanders frequently call them Tiapani (Japan), Malike or Amelika (USA) and Olani (Holland) respectively. Especially in sports competitions between the villages, the villagers use the names and flags of these countries.

Although the island features a well-maintained airstrip, flights from Rarotonga are very infrequent. The island is closer to Samoa than to the rest of the Cook Islands. The five hour flight from Rarotonga now operates when there is a Government charter once every six weeks or so.

The submerged Tema Reef is situated 23 km southeast of Pukapuka. About 60 km away is Nassau (Cook Islands) which is owned by the people of Pukapuka and considered part of it administratively. Since the 1950s it has been governed by a Council of Chiefs of Pukapuka. The Nassau Island Committee advises the Pukapuka Island Committee on matters relating to its own island.

Pukapuka and Nassau were hit by Cyclone Percyin February 2005 — a Category Four cyclone that destroyed the taro gardens, brought down thousands of trees, and damaged three-quarters of the houses.


The United States of America gave up its claim to the island in a treaty signed with New Zealand/the Cook Islands on December 3, 1980.


Pukapuka has its own language and customs, and other Cook Islanders say its main asset is its “beautiful girls”. Its name derives from the puka tree which is commonplace.

The entire population is said to be descended from just 15 adults and an unknown number of children who survived a catastrophic storm and tidal wave (tsunami) over 300 years ago. 664 people inhabited the island as of the 2001 census.

The late American writer Robert Dean Frisbie settled on Pukapuka in 1924 and immortalised the island in the books he wrote about it. He said at the time he was looking for a place beyond the reach of "the faintest echo from the noisy clamour of the civilised world". He found it, and to this day Pukapuka is one of the most untouched and secluded places in the Cook Islands.

In 2006, the United States version of the television show Survivor filmed its thirteenth season, Survivor: Cook Islands, in Aitutaki, near Pukapuka. In the series one of the tribes was named Puka Puka.

See also


  1. ^ Ethnology of Pukapuka, by Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole (1938). Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 150.
  2. ^ Through Enemy Lines, Phil Hirsch, editor ; Pyramid Books, NY, NY, 1967.

External links

Coordinates: 10°53′S 165°40′W / 10.883°S 165.667°W / -10.883; -165.667



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