During our time on Rarotonga, owning the Dive & Surf Shop in the capital Avarua, this was one of the most frequent questions that visitors asked us: Are there sharks in Rarotonga, and if so, which ones and where? Based on our experience, that of fellow dive operators and (spear)fishers, here is the answer.
Rarely you see little sharks in Rarotonga’s shallow lagoon. But there are Whitetip sharks, Blacktip sharks, and Grey reef sharks in the passages and open ocean areas of Rarotonga. And also, Hammerhead sharks, Tiger sharks, Bull sharks, and Oceanic white sharks.
Get your free Sharks in Rarotonga & 9 Popular Spots to See Them infographic at the end of this article.
Sharks in Rarotonga – Species and Facts
These are the commonly spotted types of sharks in Rarotonga:
- Whitetip reef shark
One of the most common sharks in Oceania, with a size of up to 1.6 meters/ 5.5 feet. Its main characteristics are the white spots on the tip of the dorsal and caudal fins. Whitetips are curious but rarely aggressive towards humans.
- Blacktip reef shark
Like the whitetip shark named after the spots on the dorsal and caudal fins, in this case, black. It’s another abundant shark that attains a length of 1.6 meters/ 5.5 feet and prefers shallow, coastal water. There have been rare cases where a blacktip accidentally bit a person in the calf, who waded through the flat water.
- Grey reef shark
Completely in grey, with a round snout, big eyes, and of medium size with about 2 meters/ 6.6 feet. The shark shows when it feels threatened, swims sideways with its pectoral fins lowered.
- Hammerhead shark
The hammerhead uses its unique head to detect and hunt prey. In particular to catch and pin down its favorite dish, the stingray. Usually, hammerhead sharks are safe for humans, but they defend themselves when attacked. Their size can reach 6 meters/ 19.7 feet.
While these species of sharks are more rarely seen in Rarotonga:
- Tiger shark
Large female specimens can have a length of 5 meters/ 16.4 feet and about 1 ton of weight. The shark’s skin color ranges from blue to green and shows tiger-like black stripes – this is how he got its name. Tiger sharks are a more dangerous shark species, in second place behind the Great White.
- Bull shark
A bullnose and aggressive due to a high testosterone level are the main characteristics of the Bull shark. With about 3.5 meters/ 11.5 feet and 300 kilograms, it’s smaller than the Tiger shark but hazardous for humans too. Bull sharks can survive in freshwater, which makes them appear in rivers.
- Oceanic whitetip shark or brown shark
Long white-tipped rounded fins on a short, stocky body characterize the oceanic whitetip shark. The Cook Islanders often call it a brown shark. It has the reputation to be unpredictable and can become aggressive towards humans.
In general: Although severe incidents with humans only occur in sporadic cases, sharks still can act unpredictably and attack without being provoked. Thus, be cautious and keep a safe distance from sharks.
For many more details about shark species, have a look at the website of the Shark Research Institute.
Sharks in Rarotonga’s Shallow Lagoon Are Very Rare
The lagoon of Rarotonga does not cater to sharks. That is because
- The lagoon is relatively small. At its widest point at Muri village in the southeast, it is about 700 meters/ 2,300 feet between the beach and the reef. Everywhere else, it is much smaller. On the east coast, in the Matavera district, there is no lagoon at all.
- Besides, Rarotonga’s entire lagoon is shallow. And large rocky areas and coral banks take up a lot of space. Thus, there is simply not enough room to move for bigger fish.
- On top of it, the tides play a significant role. At low tide, the water level is lower than knee-deep and large fish are at risk of running aground.
All in all, Rarotonga’s lagoon is not a living and hunting environment for large fish like sharks.
Yet, from time to time, small sharks are washed over the reef or passage walls during high tide or stormy weather. Or end up in the lagoon due to other coincidences. Usually, these are tiny reef sharks. Since this is not the right place for them, they get out as quickly as they came in. Hence, you spot them only rarely.
Sharks in Rarotonga’s Seven Passages
What exactly is a passage?
A passage is an entry point from the open ocean into a lagoon or towards land.
It can be natural or human-made, the latter usually to allow boats to land. But it also enables all types of marine life to come in, small and big.
Rarotonga has seven passages, the two harbors of the capital Avarua included.
Sharks in Rarotonga like to hang out at the entrance area and the bottom of a passage. They do not come in too far as the swim-way flattens quickly towards the beaches. Most of the time, you encounter the same species of sharks in or around one passage. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t come across other kinds of sharks there as well.
These are Rarotonga’s seven passages and the types of sharks you can encounter.
Starting with the two harbors in the capital Avarua. Followed by the five passages, clockwise from Avarua town:
- Avatiu harbor and its marina is a commercial harbor with a lot of boat traffic. Sharks are not tempted to enter this little and busy area. But in the same way, one would not snorkel, dive or swim there.
- Avarua harbor at Trader Jacks restaurant is a start-off for heaps of leisure boats. The way out into the open ocean is short, and sharks are rarely spotted here.
- Avana Passage, on the East coast:
Sandy, but up to 25 meters/ 80 feet deep. This passage surprises because where it merges into the open ocean, often reef sharks are swimming by. But also tiger and bull sharks are around.
- Aaavaroa Passage, on the South coast:
Depth: maximum 24 meters/ 80 feet. It is a long and winding passage with mostly strong currents. And a gathering point for reef sharks, especially one of the rare spots to meet the grey reef sharks.
- Papua Passage, on the South coast:
With 18 meters/ 59 feet depths, shallow and also relatively short. Still, it attracts heaps of whitetip reef sharks.
- Rutaki Passage, on the South coast:
With nearly 30 meters/ 98 feet depth, it is the deepest passage of Rarotonga. Whitetip reef sharks are frequent visitors there.
- Arorangi Passage, on the West coast:
The smallest and shallowest passage of Rarotonga, with a depth of only 12 meters/ 39 feet. It ends in a broad pool area around the jetty. There are basically no sharks around.
Sharks in Rarotonga‘s Open Ocean
Surely, the open sea is more appealing to sharks than limited spaces. And the massive Pacific Ocean is right in front of Rarotonga. The island’s coastline is rugged and rapidly dropping off into the deep blue. Which attracts these large predators.
Sharks in Rarotonga like to gather at the Drop-offs next to the passages, like
- Avatiu Drop-Off: Right outside of Avatiu harbor. Its depth goes down to 40 meters/ 131 feet with big fish around. The primary representative from the shark family is the whitetip reef shark.
- Outside Avana: Besides whales (at whale season), now and then, bull and tiger sharks swim by.
- Arorangi Drop-Off: A gradually sloping reef with massive coral banks. Depth 30 meters/ 98 feet. Here you can spot whitetip reef sharks.
- Rutaki Drop-Off: Estimated 30 meters/ 40 feet deep. The most exciting area, because you can practically meet every kind of shark here. Besides reef sharks, bull and tiger sharks are around.
- Avaavaroa Drop-Off: Descending 40 meters/ 131 feet into the big blue. Very impressive as this is one of the major spots for tiger and hammerhead sharks. And now and then, an oceanic whitetip shark comes by.
Besides, there are more great underwater spots around the island. Shipwrecks, pinnacle landscapes, tunnels, labyrinths, and similar. These are also fabulous places for the sharks in Rarotonga to show off.
Sum Up: Rarotonga’s 9 Popular Places to See Sharks
- Avana Passage
- Outside Avana
- Avaavaroa Passage
- Avaavaroa Drop-Off
- Papua Passage
- Rutaki Passage
- Rutaki Drop-Off
- Arorangi Drop-Off
- Avatiu Drop-Off
Sharks on other islands of the Cook Islands
There are not only sharks in Rarotonga, but in the entire Cook Islands.
Penrhyn in particular, an atoll in the Northern Group, is famous for its abundance of sharks, which has given it the nickname Shark Island. Marine biologists assume that there are still unknown species of shark in this pristine atoll.
Hence, the list of shark types across the Cook Islands can be extended by:
- Dusky shark
- Silver shark
- Silky shark
- Silvertip shark
- Nurse shark and
- Lemon shark
Click the image below for your free Sharks of Rarotonga & 9 Places to See Them PDF Infographic.
You Might Also Be Interested In …
If you are interested in reading more about sharks or other wildlife in the Cook Islands:
Have a look at our posts about the Vibrant Marine Life in the Cook Islands,
and 10 Dangerous Animals in the Cook Islands.
Besides, 9 Important Facts About Animals in the Cook Islands give you further insights into the Cook Islands’ wildlife. These are facts about animals that may impact your stay there or are important to the country’s culture.
Jessica Cramp is one Cook Island-based marine biologist and well-known shark researcher. Learn more about her work.
And we have heaps of information in our Travel Guide of the Entire Cook Islands, like details of dive- and tour operators on each island of the Cook Islands.