It’s 5pm on a Thursday and we’re out on the reef, at the breakers, looking back toward the mountains of Rarotonga, stark against a sky that’s astonishingly clear after a heavy rain.
The tide is low and the sun is heading toward the horizon. It’s hard to imagine a better place to do business.
“Just like Wolverine,” Kura Happ is telling six-year-old Leo, who’s visiting from Melbourne, explaining that sea cucumbers can eject their intestines when they’re under stress.
“These guys are super good for our lagoon. They clean it. Aren’t they cool?!”
With the Canadians and Australian guests on today’s tour, Kura shares the history of this reef – how villages used to come together to remove and burn the taramea, how in her grandfather’s youth the whole lagoon was green with remu.
She talks about the toxic algal blooms several years ago, prompted by development and seas that were unusually warm. She picks up urchins and crabs, her eyes always roving for octopus and eels, and explains each creature’s role in the marine ecosystem.
“A sea cucumber!” Leo interrupts her, bounding over the reef.
“We don’t step on these guys,” she says to him, pointing to the living corals. “We want these guys to grow.”
In the developing movement toward more sustainable habits, there are various players.
Some people advocate at international conferences for stricter policies. Others march in protests. Some sing. Some make movies.
Kura takes people onto the reef, connecting them to an environment that fed her ancestors before there was money.
Her intention was not to be part of any movement, but only to make a living by being in the lagoon, the place she loves most.
“I just want to educate and share the love, man,” she says of opening her small business, Ariimoana Reef Tours, earlier this year. “It’s so beautiful out there.”
Best known for her soulful music, Kura now spends her days talking to tourists about Rarotonga’s marine ecosystems – how they sustain themselves, how the species in them interact, what happens when they become unhealthy or unwhole.
She learnt all of this, not through books and journal articles, but through intergenerational teaching and her own experience. This is the essence of Māori science.
“I don’t know all the scientific words,” she says. “But I do know the reef.”
Growing up in Vaimaanga, Kura spent entire days on the reef, hunting for octopus with her papa or throwing matu rori at her sister. Often she didn’t leave the beach until dinnertime.
When she was seven years old, Kura moved to Australia to attend school. Every year, she returned to Rarotonga during the holidays, and those days on the reef acquired new value. They came to symbolise what she was missing: home.
When she finished school, Kura moved back to Rarotonga and hasn’t left since. Now, when she travels internationally to play music or visit her partner’s family, she can’t wait to get home.
In the 16 years she’s been back, Kura has always worked day jobs on the sea. She was a tour guide with Captain Tama’s and then a guide with Ariki Adventures. She voyaged aboard Marumaru Atua. She kite-surfed, spearfished, and dove. She dreamed of running her own business, and she knew she wanted its focus to be the sea.
“My papa used to tell me stories about how they used to walk on the reef and get their kai and the mamas would wait on the beach and set the fire up,” she says. “There were no refrigerators back then. I want to live like that. I want to live off the land. I want to just be an island girl.”
About a year ago, Kura began talking to her partner, Jacopo, about what she wanted to do. He fell in love with the idea. It made sense; already they lived on the beach in Vaimaanga and went searching for seafood on the reef every day after work.
Together they began to assemble the parts of a business.
They cut down coconut trees and sanded them to make benches at the beach. They tracked down and bought every book they could find about the Cook Islands’ culture and environment. They purchased hiking boots in a variety of sizes and whittled walking sticks out of toa wood.
They hung posters on the walls that detail all the fish, corals, and invertebrates in the Cook Islands’ marine environment. They designed packages: reef walks of varying lengths, nu, uto pancakes, fruits.
Kura asked Sunshine of Sunshine’s Cultural Activities to mentor her in weaving so she could make her own hats. She also asked him to teach her about the arāpō. She got certified as a lifeguard, then as a lifeguard trainer.
For a time, she considered offering tours around the island but chose, in the end, to stick close to home, in Vaimaanga where she grew up.
She decided to call the business Ariimoana, King of the Ocean, after her Tahitian godson, and did a little advertising through Facebook and Instagram. Slowly the bookings mounted.
The first tour was in March. In June, a visitor commented on her Facebook page: “This is the most unique perspective of this magical island, being out on the reef, looking at the tropical backdrop and having Kura reveal the secret world under the water that Cook Islanders have long lived from, understood, and protected.”
In August, someone from New Zealand wrote: “Being a local, Kura also gave us real insight into how important the ocean is to the people of
And in October: “After having lived more than 2 years on the island, walking the reef with Kura made us realise we knew nothing about the marine life in the lagoon. Kura is so knowledgeable. She is deeply passionate about her reef and her passion is contagious.”
Kura is more interested in surviving by doing what she loves than she is in maximising profit. She doesn’t schedule more than three tours a week. If the weather isn’t good, she cancels and reschedules. For reasons related to safety, she refuses to take more than six people on the reef at a time.
She has a few goals: to show local kids it’s possible to stay home and build on your dream, to build on her own, and to make the world a more sustainable place by changing one perspective at a time.
“I like to share how our people lived, our culture, man, it’s so cool,” she says. “It’s the best.”
She gets teary thinking about it. “I don’t even like the outside world,” she says, laughing.
“I wanna be here forever.”