Home by the sea

Saturday October 05, 2019 Written by Published in Weekend
Coming back in from a free dive out over the reef out from Blackrock. Photo Charlotte Piho. 19100448 Coming back in from a free dive out over the reef out from Blackrock. Photo Charlotte Piho. 19100448

Charlee McLean turned down overseas opportunities to come home to her island, her reef, her ocean – only to find her love of the sea has thrust her back on the world stage as a young voice for the marine environment. 


Charlee McLean was raised by her grandparents in Rarotonga. She grew up in the taro patch, ate from the garden and spent all her free time in the ocean.

Now just 18, McLean has been an environmental intern at the Te Ipukarea Society for almost a year where she has been able to use her love for the ocean to discover more about her environment.

She’s had opportunities to speak at international forums as a representative of the South Pacific; Charlee conveyed a different perspective of indigenous culture and tradition, sharing her story on the effects that development has had on our landscapes, seascapes and lifestyle.

Charlee’s presentation highlighted the importance of valuing and integrating traditional Cook Island knowledge and custom in Germany at a climate change conference earlier this year.

She was also invited to create video content about our ocean landscape that was shared at the UN Climate Summit just last month.

Unlike a lot of students who have just finished high school, she’s taking time in Rarotonga to gain work experience so she a good idea of what she wants to study in the future.

Some of McLean’s fondest memories come from having her grandparents tell her their stories and they always encouraged her to have a plan for her future.

“I was never inside the house, straight after school we were on the reef but nowadays technology just takes over everything and people are just missing out on so much,” said McLean.

McLean shares the same respect her grandparents had for the environment and still remembers their commitment to caring for their family land and home.

“I will always remember my grandparents protecting the land, they were always in the garden. They looked after their things and they did that for us,” says McLean.

She was still quite young when her grandparents passed away and that was a hard time for the entire family.

McLean used to attend Avarua Primary School before moving to Perth where her parents lived – but she missed the being in the taro patch.

She missed waking up at six in the morning to catch the bus to school and straight after school jumping off the reef.

Her grandparent always warned her against venturing out on the reef but she calls the strong Avaavaroa passage her backyard.

McLean found that living in Rarotonga and Australia has helped her appreciate the island lifestyle where people have freedom, the ocean at their fingertips and don’t have to worry about much.

“It’s easy to improvise here and find something to do and make fun out of nothing,” she says.

McLean enjoys free diving and sitting on the sand 10 metres underwater and watching the fish go by. Because of her fascination with the ocean environment, she’d love to study marine biology.

Originally she had thought she might want to become an optometrist but she wanted to live in Rarotonga and do something that could benefit the island and keep it safe.

“There’s no other place on earth where the warmth and comfort of my ancestors is sensed so freely.”

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