There are escalating arguments between providers about the risks: criticisms about over-crowding at low tide, some guides taking out parties when it is not low tide, the tourists’ use of sea scooters, and accommodation providers encouraging snorkelers and kayakers to head out on their own without guides.
KiteSUP Watersports Cook Islands had been taking tours into the Avaavaroa passage for the past year but in April, they decided to stop sending in their guides because of safety concerns.
Tom Weeks, a qualified dive instructor and tour guide at KiteSUP, says the passage is a beautiful spot to snorkel and there is a higher chance of seeing sea turtles – but operators in the passage do not fully understand the risks, even at low tide.
The conditions out in the passage are becoming more unstable, he added. “There shouldn’t be anyone snorkelling in the passage at all.”
Four tour companies are operating in the passage, each taking about 15 people at a time.
There have been accusations flying back and forth about alleged lack of professionalism and disregard for safety measures.
All are agreed, though, that the dangerous waterway should only to be attempted with tour guides that have the knowledge and experience to navigate the strong riptides. Those who join in on these tours are often required to sign a liability waiver.
The 20-metre-deep passage is a risky water sprint, but it is also home to a number of green sea turtles and critically endangered Hawksbill turtles that are resident in the passage.
Last week, Pacific Divers operator Stephen Lyon called for better water-safety education for providers, saying more people had died in the “deceptive” Avaavaroa passage in any other waterway.
But this week another operator, Ariki Adventures, said the problem with over-crowding in the passage could be countered with better communication: “We communicate with other tour operators to make sure everyone out there is safe,” said director Kave Tamaariki.
Ariki has six experienced guides with each tour group, he says, and they are still seeing an abundance of ocean life.
They are the only tour operator that is using sea scooters in the passage, but Tamaariki rejects criticisms, saying the scooters help people save energy when fighting the passage current. The propulsion vehicles require less kicking when snorkelling, so tourists don’t walk on the coral.
The passage is only safe during a one-hour time period at low tide, usually in the morning.
Tamaariki says: “Sea scooters are one of the best safety devices we have for getting people in and out of the passage.”
His wife Julie Tamaariki adds: “Walking on coral can cause damage to the ocean ecosystem but using sea scooters means that people don’t have to walk on any coral to get back through the passage.”
She says other dangers of the passage include the many stonefish and fire coral – and these can be easily avoided with the aid of sea scooters.