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Young artists bring some color to record-breaking marine park

November 23, 2021

When the government of the Cook Islands announced in 2017 that it was creating the world’s largest multi-use marine reserve, Seacology’s leadership immediately started thinking about ways that we could help it be successful. Encompassing the South Pacific country’s entire exclusive economic zone, an area as large as Mexico, the ambitions of the Marae Moana (“sacred ocean”) reserve were extraordinary.

Experience has taught us that in order to be successful, conservation efforts must be supported by the local people. Enforcement is particularly challenging in a huge but sparsely populated country like the Cook Islands, which has fewer than 18,000 citizens spread out over 15 remote islands.

Last year, Seacology began working with the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, an organization that promotes cultural and environmental education in the Cook Islands through sailing, to promote the new regulations.

In the partnership’s first year, we saw many encouraging signs of support for Marae Moana from across the country and society. The Ariki (traditional chiefs representing the country’s various islands) pledged their support for the plan. Social media promoting the reserve has reached nearly half of the Cook Islands’ population. Seacology sponsored multiple highly publicized CIVS voyages across the reserve, including one attended by the country’s prime minister.

Recently, we’ve been working with local schools to involve young Cook Islanders in the effort. Outreach groups, led by Marae Moana ambassador and former rugby champion Kevin Iro, have been visiting schools to discuss the importance of the marine environment and how it will benefit from the reserve’s success. Inspired by what they had learned, ten students at Apii Te Uki Ou, a school on the main island of Rarotonga, competed in a Seacology-sponsored art contest to design the uniforms that will be worn by the park’s outreach officers. The aspiring artists’ colorful designs featured marine life found in the waters of Marae Moana such as whales and turtles, set against traditional Polynesian symbols and patterns. As part of the contest, the school also received a $500 grant that will help fund a summer camp on the nearby island of Mitiaro.

Kora Kora (left) and Kevin Iro from the Marae Moana Communications Outreach Team, presenting Te Iri Iri Henderson with her winner’s certificate plus $500 from Seacology to the Apii Te Uki Ou school.

After a round of public voting on social media, year-eight student Te Iri Iri Henderson’s design was named the winner.

“My design is based on the ocean and land, with a few birds. I used the fish hook which represents life and surrounded it with other designs of sea life and the kotaa,” Henderson told the Cook Islands News after her win was announced. “I also used the colours of blue representing the sea, and green representing the land.”

As the reserve is implemented, we plan for more young people to leave their mark on the project. The outreach team is already working with another group of students on the island of Aitutaki to develop a guide to the reserve as well as posters.