French Polynesia is famous for its black pearls. Most of the pearls come from the Tuamotu atolls. Visiting a pearl farm and getting pearls was on our list of things we wanted to do but fell behind diving, surfing and finding a remote atoll with nothing but us. After spending a week in Apataki where we definitely found seclusion, our friends on another boat, Bubbles, showed up to hang out for a few days. They also invited me on with them to another atoll before meeting back up with Delos in Rangiroa.
Alex (far left in the picture above), Ross and Diego made up Bubbles at the time. Alex has traveled all over the world including backpacking through Africa for some time. He is the craziest guy I’ve ever met with one of the sweetest beards I’ve also ever seen. Ross was one of Alex’s friends from Wisconsin and was onboard for about four months. They met Diego surfing in the Galapagos and invited him to cross the Pacific with them. Diego, being only 18, was eager to get out and experience the world, so of course couldn’t turn it down. The boat is basically run like a small apartment that a few buddies live in. You sleep wherever you end up passing out, eat bread and canned meat, and drink rum out of syrup containers, which actually gives the rum a pretty good flavor.
After leaving Apataki we decided to go and find an authentic pearl farm at a near by atoll called Arutua. Arutua is rarely seen by cruisers and tourists due to the depth of the pass which is only five and a half feet. The draft on Delos, for example, is seven foot so there is no way we could have made it in. The draft on Bubbles is somewhere around five and a half but Alex and his boat run on luck so we went for it. At the front of the pass we were met by a local fisherman, looking at us pretty strange. We tried to ask if it was high tide or not and where would be the best place to enter the pass. He just gave us a “follow me” wave and led us into the pass. Diego climbed up the mast which sits at about 50 feet to getter a better view of the coral. From his view and ours on the deck it looked like the keel was going to hit the bottom the whole way in but we followed our guide and made it.
We anchored just outside the one and only village in Arutua and were soon being looked at by all the locals from the shore. Being out of bread and canned meat, it was time to go to shore to find some food. Right when we pulled our dinghy up Ross walked into the first house to ask for a store. The lady was so amazed at outsiders she invited all of us into her home and fed us coffee, fish, bread and chicken until we couldn’t eat anymore. The kindness of the people in these islands keeps shocking me. All they want to do is make you feel at home no matter what the cost is to them. She asked why we were there and where we came from. We had to keep repeating we sailed from America because she just couldn’t fathom it. There was a language barrier but between the four of us we could make a little bit of sense. After her doubts about our story had drifted away we told her we came to look for authentic black pearls. Apparently we came to the right place because this atoll had 60 farms on it. With a population of only 600 people it’s easy to see that everyone here had some hand in the pearl farm business. The women got up and walked into another room. After a few seconds she came back with a shell basket filled with pearls. There must have been 100 in this basket. They weren’t all top quality but it was still amazing. She told us we could have all of them. Not even 30 minutes after setting the anchor we already had a bag full of pearls. Word got out that there were visitors on the atoll so pretty soon the one police officer walked into our hosts house to talk to us. If I was ever going to be a cop it would have to be on an atoll like this. All he does is ride around on an old, rusty, three wheeled bike all day.
After the cop left she walked us to a near by farm where we learned all about how they cultivate the pearls. They actually make an incision in the pearls appendix and insert a small marble looking thing. This thing they insert is called the nucleus and comes from crushed shells out of Mississippi of all places. After the nucleus is placed in the oyster they put it back in the water for a whole year before cutting it back open and getting the pearl out.
Meeting the guy that ran this pearl farm was a great experience. We even got invited to come the next morning onto the boat to go out into the lagoon and collect the oysters that were ready for harvesting. We woke up at 5 a.m. the next day and hopped on with the pearl farmers. About 15 minutes out, just as the sun was starting to rise, the boat broke down. After some time trying to fix the outboard another farmer showed up and towed us back. Unfortunately we didn’t get to collect any oysters for ourselves but it was still cool being out on the water with the locals.
Over the next few days we went to about 10 pearl farms, each one with there own tricks and styles of farming. It is pretty strange because 90% of the farms are owned by a family with the last name of Parker. The Parkers make up 300 of the 600 people on the atoll. It turns out in 1903 a guy from New Zealand came to Arutua and started a family with a young Polynesian girl. Now they dominate the pearl industry. I didn’t end up buying any pearls personally but got a lot given to me at each farm we visited. Alex and Ross paid about $100 for 11 pearls each. Each one of the pearls I was given and the ones they bought are worth at least $50 each, some probably a lot more.
What I thought was most amazing was how wealthy everyone in the town was. Everyone lived in beautiful houses, some even four stories high, a lot different from the shacks that we were used to seeing on every other island. The motu where the town is, isn’t more then a mile or so long but one of the farmers though it was necessary to have a Mercedes.
Volleyball is surprisingly a big deal in French Polynesia and Arutua had the nicest covered court that had to have been quite expensive. We stayed for a couple more days playing volleyball and indoor soccer with the locals before heading out to Rangiroa to meet back up with Delos.