Covid-19

Moana of the reef: ‘The water to me is like food’

Once, Charlotte Piho was a Sydney high-flier with an apartment in Bondi and regular TV appearances. But when the borders began shutting down, she chose to stay in Rarotonga. With her dad and two part-time staff, she’s trying to reinvent her diving tours for the local families she loves. Jonathan Milne reports.

At dawn, the light beneath the water’s surface shimmers and dances in ripples of gold. Charlotte Piho will be out there this morning as she is most days, beyond the mouth of the passage at Avana, swimming, diving on her own.

She’s been diving out beyond the reef since she was a small girl. With her grandfather, with her father, with her brothers. They would make up stories for her mother, so she didn’t worry so much. “I always wanted to dive deep.”

Her father Tuhe calls her “the real Moana”, the girl in the children’s fable who would journey beyond the reef.

As a child, her grandparents Haki Mata and Charlie Piho would bring this little New Zealand-born girl back home to them in Matavera every school holidays, seeking a feeding child whom her parents refused to relinquish. Her grandparents’ families were from Aitutaki and Rakahanga; she says she is born from a bloodline of pearl farmers, of free divers.

The reef comes in close to the beach at Matavera; she could always hear the sea. 

Outside the coral buffer, the seafloor plunges 300 metres. She would look for sharks. She remembers being with her dad when she saw her first turtle, trying to follow as it swam away quickly into the distance. “That’s why as an adult I’ve always been so obsessed with them, it’s such a happy memory.”

Returning to Auckland, though, she was envious of her friends who would spend their holidays in the malls and going to the movies and theme parks. “I felt like I was missing life.” 

And when Charlotte was in her late teens, her grandparents died. “I stopped coming back home.” 

Yet there’s something about turtles that connects her back to her grandparents, she says. They have a softness to the way they move, they’re old, they’re quietly watchful. She says it’s as if they have souls. 

AVAAVAROA PASSAGE

“Follow me,” Charlotte calls.

We’re out in the lagoon near Avaavaroa Passage on Rarotonga’s south coast. Carrying her Canon DSLR camera in a robust blue waterproof casing, she dives. A green turtle swims languidly towards her; we dive too, and swim alongside, giving it a respectful distance.

It’s low tide, barely knee-deep in much of the lagoon, yet here in the approach to the passage the seafloor drops away. We swim around the coral-heads, as the turtles come out to play.

Charlotte’s tour is rated Cook Islands’ No 1 tour of 44 on TripAdvisor. That number – 44 – is probably looking a bit shaky now, because right now, there are no tourists and so, many tour operators have been forced to shut down.

Not Charlotte. She is treating this time as a challenge to rebuild and reinvent her business. Last week we talked with Tata Crocombe, who has his staff working on the government wage subsidy, repainting and refurbishing the three resorts he owns.

Charlotte doesn’t have bricks and mortar and palm-thatched beachfront villas like other tourism operators. She has a grey van, a few paddleboards and scuba sets, a website and a reputation to uphold. 

So with her two part-time staff (on the government wage subsidy like Crocombe’s) she’s rebuilding the website, reinventing her business strategy, and reinforcing her reputation.

The day before, she took out half a dozen people from the Cook Islands Tourism marketing team. She wants locals to discover the magic of the abundant marine life beneath the surface of a lagoon that, these days, looks deserted from the beach.

It’s a chance to remind Cook Islanders – who have less money but perhaps a little more time than they once did – of the rich natural environment at their own front door. “There have been so many good things that have come out of this,” she says. “Every single day people are looking healthier, going out walking, spending time with their families.”

This shutdown does mean forgetting about the $120 per person she used to charge tourists for her small-group tours. She now charges locals $50 a person; she’ll negotiate rates for families case by case. But Charlotte says money never meant that much to her anyway ...

HIGH HEELS AND HIGH GRADES

Charlotte Piho excelled at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School in New Zealand; she ranked in the top 3 percent in AMP Bank tests; she was granted Reserve Bank and Treasury scholarships to study commercial law and finance at Auckland University, she says. She completed her degrees and moved to Sydney, Australia, seemingly destined for a career in the CBD.

But it wasn’t for her, as her mum Suzanne later recalled. “Charlotte abandoned her heels, which she looked great in by the way, many years ago.”

Charlotte agrees: “I don’t think I ever felt like I was in the right place.”

And after years of 60-hour weeks, first in finance with MRI Software, then jetting around the world marketing for a fashion distribution company, something had to give. Her appendix burst suddenly; she nearly died. She spent two weeks in a Sydney hospital. “The doctor said he was surprised I made it through,” she told an Australian newspaper.

So she started again. Her dad Tuhe had returned to Rarotonga, to the old family home – and more and more, she was drawn back too. She divided her time between Rarotonga and Sydney, where she would stay in a friend’s AirBnB across the road from Bondi Beach.

She built a profile as she popularised stand-up paddleboarding, SUP Yoga and increasingly, carved out a reputation as an underwater photographer. 

Canon spotted her photographic work, and recognised it on International Women’s Day in 2018. She judged an animal photography competition for Canon, and exhibited her turtle images at The Bucket List in the Bondi Pavilion. She was contracted to photograph the Nutri Grain Ironman and Ironwoman Series, and the Bondi to Bronte Oceanswim. She shot marketing campaigns for Speedo, Softlite Surfboards and Dafins.

She never put on her heels and went into the city. Instead, she’d surf every day. Friends called her “Miss Antarctica” because even in winter, when others put on their wetsuits, she’d be out there in her bikini.

But she says, she always needed to feel the water against her skin. “I always like to feel connected to the water.”

When the world started locking down its borders this year to control the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was one of those lucky enough to have a choice: she could stay in Australia, New Zealand or Cook Islands.

The choice was easy. She came home to Raro to live in Matavera with her 60-year-old dad.

THE MISS-FITS

Tuhe Piho used to be known as the Turtleman, and ran snorkelling tours long before his famous daughter did. He’s out with us this week, on his paddleboard, keeping an eye on our small children in the water.

“Miss Antarctica” is joined by her warm and strikingly attractive team: Miss International Cook Islands Emma Kainuku-Walsh, and Pete Marsters, whom they teasingly call Mr Cook Islands because he’s been seen driving the branded car of his famous fiancée, Miss World Oceania Tajiya Sahay.

Looking beyond that, though, Pete, 30, returned from travelling the world to be top try-scorer for the champion Ngatangiia Sea Eagles last year; Emma, 26, has been volunteering with Te Ipukarea Society, teaching environmental skills to school children and helping lead the society’s Sea and Earth Advocates Camp. And they’re both accomplished divers.

That’s important. After controversy last year about safety in the Avaavaroa Passage, the half-dozen tour operators have agreed safety standards with the Water Safety Council, including minimum 1-to-4 ratios and up-to-date safety equipment.

So out in the lagoon, Emma and Pete help tow small children around on buoyancy aids, while Charlotte guides the adults to a critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. Together, they dive closer.

Their golden shells are beautiful – and as a result, there’s an illicit demand for them. For hundreds of years, says the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, their shells have been used for handbags, jewellery and trinkets. These big, yellow-beaked turtles have been hunted almost to extinction.

This one has been dubbed Big Charlotte by Tuhe, in his daughter’s honour. And every time Charlotte Piho comes here, she says, she looks for Big Charlotte.

“You don’t see many, they hide more, and sit quite low in the water. They don’t come up to play like the green turtles,” she says.

“I feel they have a bit of an understanding that humans are dangerous, that they can’t get too close to us.

“It’s like with Covid-19 and learning they are not able to touch and connect. It’s good for humans and animals to be able to get close to each other without touching.”

OUT AVANA PASSAGE

Out beyond the reef again this morning, she will dive on her own. Until a few years ago, Charlotte had barely ever used a snorkel. She can free dive down 30 metres or more.

“The water to me is like food,” she says. “It’s charging, recharging, inspiring, fresh. The water is life.

“I feel like I’ve found myself, like I’m doing what I was meant to do.”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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