The Atoll of Penrhyn (Tongareva)

Posted on June 10, 2016


The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands and whilst Rarotonga may be the most densely populated Penrhyn, or Tongareva to give it its Maori name is the most remote. Located 1,364 kms northwest of Rarotonga and just 9 degrees south of the Equator, Penrhyn sits atop the highest submarine volcano in the Cook Islands at 4,876 m above the ocean floor. The island is composed of a ring of coral 77km around and in the middle sits the largest enclosed lagoon of all the Cooks measuring 233 square kilometres.


History of Penrhyn

You may be asking where Penrhyn gets its name – to many it looks like it could be a tiny village in the Welsh valleys, however Tongareva was given its name by the crew of the Lady Penrhyn, commanded by Captain Sever who landed on the island on their way from the Isle of Wight to set up the convict colonies in Australia.

Penrhyn as you would expect is a Welsh name and means ‘peninsula’ and is the most common name used today. Tongareva is variously translated as ‘Tonga floating in space’, ‘Tonga in the skies’ or ‘A way from south’. With its remote location, it was easy to see why early Polynesian settlers believed the island to float in a vast space.

Population of Penrhyn

Despite its remote location, Penrhyn boasts a current population of 211 (according to the 2011 census) and the majority of these inhabitants live in one of two villages, Omoka and Te Tautua. Omoka is the main village and seat of the Penrhyn Island Council. Three quarters of the island’s population live in Omoka.

Getting to Penrhyn

As the most remote of all the Cook Islands, getting to Penrhyn is no easy feat.  Air Rarotonga has only a guideline schedule and flights are regularly cancelled due to insufficient passenger numbers or a lack of fuel at Penrhyn to get you back! At the moment, there is no availability for any flights departing directly to Penrhyn although if you are a serious remote island collector, Air Rarotonga do offer a Northern Atolls Expedition which will take you to Penrhyn, Manihiki and Pukapuka.

Things to do on Penrhyn

If you are lucky enough to make it out to Penrhyn, you won’t be short of things to see and do on this remote but stunningly beautiful island. With such a beautiful lagoon on your doorstep, as you would imagine, most of the activities for islanders and tourists are water-based. Fishing is a hugely popular pastime on the island and this is both recreational but also functional. The population of this remote island relies on the sea for the majority of its food in addition to locally grown plants such as pawpaw, coconut, breadfruit and yam.

Historically, the biggest export on the island were natural mother-of-pearl, however algal blooms in 2000 all but killed off the pearl farming. More recently, Penrhyn has joined with the island of Manihiki as a thriving centre for the cultivation of black pearls.

Sea life is in abundance around Penrhyn and sharks are regular visitors to the island. They are mainly black tip sharks which the locals say are not a threat to humans and locals can regularly be seen diving amongst the shark, looking for black pearls.

If you are looking for somewhere completely off the beaten track and an opportunity to see what life without all the trappings of modern society looks like, a trip to Penrhyn may be just the ticket.

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