Fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving – the Cook Islands have it all, plus 73 types of coral and hundreds of varieties of fish, including humpback whales migrating north from the Antarctic. The islands have built a new and thriving industry around cultivation of the black pearl.
The Cook Islands – 15 coral atolls and volcanic islands in the heart of the South Pacific – are spread over an area the size of India. Settled in the sixth century by Polynesians from Tahiti, the Cook Islands retain a mythical character and have assumed a place in seafaring lore. "Polynesians have their own language and government and enjoy a vigorous and diverse culture with significant differences between each island."*
The first Polynesian colonists of the islands arrived by ship. Spanish ships visited the islands in the late sixteenth century, and British navigator, Captain James Cook, arrived, first in 1773 and again in 1779. (The islands were later named for Cook by the Russian publishers of a naval chart.) After a famous conflict between indigenous islanders and commercial sailors from Australia and New Zealand, the islands saw no more Europeans until the arrival of English missionaries in 1821. Today, around 56% of the population is affiliated with the Cook Islands Christian Church.
A British protectorate in 1888, administrative control was later transferred to New Zealand. In 1965, residents voted for self-government in free association with New Zealand. Cook Islanders are proud of their democratic tradition and the climate of openness and debate that thrives in the islands.
The Cook Islands population – slightly more than 21,000 – speaks five languages: English, Cook Islands Maori (or Rarotongan), Penrhyn, Pukapuka, and Rakahanga-Manihiki. Cook Islands Maori is the most widely spoken. The complete Cook Islands Maori Bible was first published in 1851.