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Cook Islanders celebrate a vivid new monument to conservation and culture

January 23, 2024

In December, nearly two years after the first drops of paint were brushed into place, people in the Cook Islands celebrated the completion of the largest mural in the South Pacific. The Marae Moana mural, stretching half a kilometer along what was once a drab seawall, brilliantly represents the wildlife and culture of each of the country’s 15 islands.

Seacology funded the unique art project on the island of Rarotonga as part of our support for Marae Moana (“Sacred Ocean”), the Cook Islands’ enormous marine reserve. Covering an expanse of water roughly the size of Mexico, Marae Moana includes new limits on extractive activities throughout the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Most important, there is a strict ban on both commercial fishing and seabed mining within a 50-mile radius of each of the country’s 15 islands. 

After launching hundreds of projects on islands around the world, we know that successful conservation requires public awareness and support, particularly in a large but sparsely populated country like the Cook Islands. So in 2020, we began working with the reserve’s managers and the Cook Islands Voyaging Society to spread the word about the park’s benefits to communities across the archipelago. The new mural will be a lasting part of this outreach.

Painted by visiting artist Gonzalo Aldana in partnership with local painters Ashley Chaloner and Katu Teiti, the mural is stunning. Colorful birds and fish, traditional Polynesian designs, and key historical figures and events now tell the story of this unique country and its unbreakable connection to the sea.

Gonzalo Aldana lead the team of artists that worked on the massive project for almost two years.

Members of the Marae Moana team prepare to officially dedicate the mural.

The massive art installation is painted on the Nikao Seawall, which stretches along the north coast of the island outside near the country’s main airport. Before Aldana’s team transformed it into a work of art, it wasn’t much to look at—but it has protected coastal infrastructure from increasingly severe storms and rising tides. And putting the mural here, by the airport and along the main road that circles Rarotonga ensures that it will be enjoyed by locals and international visitors alike. 

At the dedication ceremony, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown expressed his admiration for the project and the talented artists who made it a reality. 

“The seawall has been transformed from being a bare grey wall to keep out the sea, into telling a story about our country, our ocean, all of our islands, our history,” he told the Cook Islands News. “It is really well done.”

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, Marae Moana Ambassador Kevin Iro, and Aldana strike a pose in front of the mural.

All visitors to Rarotonga will see the new mural, which is located just outside the airport.

After 20 months of tireless work that paused only when harsh tropical weather intervened, Aldana agreed with these sentiments. 

“It wasn’t just about beautifying the long wall, it was about the background, the soul, the culture, the people of the Cook Islands,” he told the Cook Islands News.

Read more about the mural at Radio New Zealand and the Cook Islands News.