Today we saw land for the first time in days! Everyone was on deck together, untying the lines, taking photos and waving to the crew aboard a container ship that was docked in the marina. Stepping on land was wonderful, although I still feel like I’m swaying back and forth.

Right: Te Manga, at 2,140 feet above sea level, is the highest peak on the island. Photo courtesy of Sara Close.

Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, is the most remote place I’ve ever visited. With 18,000 residents and only one main road that circles the island I feel like I’m on an episode of Survivor (series 13 was actually filmed on the nearby atoll of Aitutaki). Most residents work in the tourism industry, farm or raise livestock, partake in commercial fishing or sell black pearls. The pearls are cultivated on oyster farms and sell for up to $10,000 if they’re unblemished and exhibit a rare color.

Left: Maria Aroranqi has lived on the island for the past thirty-nine years and sells fresh produce in town a few days a week.

The island is incredibly green and banana and papaya trees dot the roadside. On any given day you can see locals buzzing around on motor scooters or women with flowers in their hair casually walking into town. Life moves slowly and everyone keeps talking about island time, which means you can expect all your meetings to start half an hour late.

But our interest in Rarotonga goes beyond the quotidian. We’re here to examine several environmental woes plaguing the island: polluted and undrinkable tap water, hazardous waste management sites, ciguatera (or fish poisoning) among residents and plastic pollution along the beaches.

Right: There are only two bus routes (clockwise and anti-clockwise) and no bus stops on this 26 sq. mile island.

Over the next few days we’ll be talking to Cook Islanders about their experiences with these issues and how it’s affected their lives. Our goal is to learn how these issues uniquely affect an island community.

We’ll look at how waste management is handled differently from larger nations that have copious amounts of space to landfill their trash; what happens to a fish-dependant community when there’s an outbreak of ciguatera; how unsafe tap water causes illness and increases bottled water consumption and who suffers when electronic waste is burned on the island and left to decompose in the sun.

Left: Muri Lagoon, a popular tourist destination, has suffered from bleached coral due to increased algal blooms that pop up when they receive extra nutrients from fertilizer and pig farm runoff. Photo courtesy of Camden Howitt.

Though these investigations are land-based and we’re no longer at sea, every issue is water-related and shows just how much this community depends on clean water for their livelihood. With no neighboring nations to provide immediate support, Rarotongans are on their own to find sustainable ways to harvest clean water and manage the adulterated water in their streams, lagoons and underground watershed.

About the Author: Lindsey Hoshaw is a freelance environmental journalist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Forbes, among others. In her spare time she moonlights as a garbologist studying people and the things they throw away. Follow her on Twitter @thegarbagegirl.

Editor’s note: The South Pacific Islands Survey is part of a larger multiyear expedition run by Pangaea Exploration, a nonprofit that investigates the health of marine life through exploration, conservation and educational outreach. The expedition focuses on marine debris, water quality, habitat conditions and overfishing in the world’s oceans. Specific emphasis is placed on the five gyres, or the five areas with the highest accumulation of plastic pollution.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.