Pearls of French Polynesia

Pearls of French Polynesia

The Tahitian Pearl is born in the lagoons of French Polynesia and is recognized around the world.  They are amazingly beautiful, seductive, and mesmerizing.  Many, if not most of the locals wear them with pride.  Small children, airport cleaning staff, shop keepers, and women of all ages proudly display their pearl collection with t-shirts, shorts and flip flops.  It is said that the most colorful pearls come from the Gambiers because of their cooler waters.

NATURES PROCESS

How is a pearl created in its natural habitat?  It occurs when a small grain of sand penetrates inside the pearl bearing oyster.  The oyster cannot expel the intruder and begins its attack.  This defense is in the form of a pearly secretion around the grain of sand which forms the pearl.

THE CULTURED PEARL

The “cultured pearl” is a jewel of the sea.  It is the result of the coordinated efforts between nature, man, and the mother-of-pearl.  The process to create a “cultured pearl” is a bit more of an adventure and an intrusion to the oyster. The cultured pearl is formed in a similar way, except with the intervention of man.  The local pearl farmer will introduce a nucleus into the oyster and then let nature take its place.

In order to grow larger pearls, the farmer will extract a small pearl growing inside the oyster and insert a nucleus of the same size.  It takes 14-18 months to grow a pearl and each oyster can grow 4-5 cultured pearls over the course of its life.

There are over 200 pearl farmers in the Gambiers.  We met a few local pearl farmers, Eric and Eugene (Dada Keck) in Mangareva who showed us around each of their farms.  Eric and his son have a pretty large operation on a small island called Gaioio (just off Totegeie and east of Mangareva).  He sells between 200-250k pearls a year, mostly to China.

Eric and his son Eric’s island and house.  Their house, pearl farm, and worker lodgings take up the entire island.

Pearl Farm off Totegegie

Pearl Farm off Totegegie

While Eugene has a smaller operation off the east side of Mangareva and produces about 100k pearls a year.

Eugene’s Pearl Farm is located over the water like most of the pearl farms in FP.

Another Pearl Farm over water

Another Pearl Farm over water

Farming Pearls

About 15 oyster shells are placed in nets and submerged 5-10 meters under water.  They are strategically placed to receive the most sun.  The color of the pearl and the shell will be determined by the amount of sun received and the strength of the oyster to open and close to receive the sun.  If the shell is primarily green, then the pearl will be green.  See the nets to the left of the worker.

Working on nets for pearl harvesting

Working on nets for pearl harvesting

Each net is removed from the water and cleaned with a pressure washer every 3 months.  Cleaning the oyster shells helps them access sun and food easier and allows them to thrive better within the nets.

Cleaning the pearls shells in between harvesting

Cleaning the pearls shells in between harvesting

Here is a little collage that includes several steps:

  1. Oysters are collected in blue mesh bags (top, left corner image).
  2. They are cleaned and placed in a plastic, long, circular, corrugated tube and placed back in the ocean (top right corner image).
  3. Shells are prepped for cleaning (middle image).
  4. After harvest, shells are shipped off island.
Harvesting the Cultured Pearl

Harvesting the Cultured Pearl

CREATING A PEARL

A skilled worker will carefully open the oyster, less than a ½ inch, to insert the nucleus.  The worker will then place the oyster shell back in the water for 14-18 months.  The oyster will live through several harvest season, if it is bearing quality pearls.

Cultured Pearl Nucleus Insertion

Cultured Pearl Nucleus Insertion

Polynesians use all aspects of the oyster once the oyster is beyond pearl bearing age.  Polynesians will use the meat for food and will prepare the oyster shells to be sold off island.  Pearl farmers make about $50 per bag which weighs up to 60 kilos!  That is a LOT of oyster shells for very little money.

HARVESTING THE PEARL

When the oyster is ready, the workers will collect the nets, remove the shells and carefully separate the pearls and meat from the shells.  Eugene let us each dig inside the meat to remove the pearl.  He then cut out the oyster to give us each a taste.

Learning how to extract pearls

Learning how to extract pearls

Living on a boat doesn’t scream for pearl jewelry.   However strong the desire is to purchase one.  Tourists can purchase pearls for 1/20th the price in the Gambiers.  So, how do you determine a quality pearl?

How to Define the Quality of a Tahitian Pearl

Once it is certain that the pearly layer is sufficient, the experts consider 5 other classification criteria’s:

  1. Luster and shine
  2. Color
  3. Size (8-12mm)
  4. Shape (round, drop, baroque, circled)
  5. Surface quality (listed A, B, C, D)

We went to visit a pearl vendor who sold pearl jewelry out of his commercial kitchen.  Yep, right next to the pots and pans was a small display of pearl jewelry.  But what was truly interesting was another display of his prized relics or artifacts that he has been collecting for 50 years.  The unusual thing was that the display looked like a mismatch of stuff until you looked closely.

He had a chief’s whale bone necklace (displayed by my friend Wilky from Agape), a precious tiara that his wife wore at their wedding (worn by Rachel from Agape) and many more stunning pieces.  He also had 3 large vases full of lose pearls.  Because, why not put precious pearls inside a vase?

French Polynesia Ancestral Jewelry

French Polynesia Ancestral Jewelry

One can buy loose pearls for as little as $2-$18 here.  But then you have to know what you are looking for and have to find someone to make it into jewelry.  And it is great to see how resourceful the Polynesians are with regards to the pearls.  It is obvious they each take great pride in their pearls.

Tahiti Marina Tainia

Tahiti Excursion

What?  Tahiti, but you just arrived in the Gambiers!  What is going on?  Well, let me tell you.  Matt and I sold our home in Austin Texas.  However, we did not want to fly back to the states to sign the documents so we hired an attorney to act as our “power of attorney (POA).”  The only problem was the title company insisted on a U.S. notary signing the POA.  So, we had to fly to Tahiti to meet the U.S. Consulate to notarize our documents.  We also had to submit our carte de sejur application for our long stay visa and run a few other errands so all good!

We took a ferry from Mangareva to an uninhabited neighboring island called Totegegie, where the airport is located.  Ferry and airport below.  The airport is lovely from the outside 🙂

Ferry to GMR Airport and Airport

Ferry to GMR Airport and Airport

We hopped on Air Tahiti, connected in HAO and 6 hours later arrived in Papeete, Tahiti.

HAO Airport

HAO Airport

Arriving in Papeete

We found several marine stores and made mental lists for boat parts and products when we come back with the boat.  We found many decently stocked markets, pharmacies and hardware stores as well.  We met with our agent, visited the local poste to get a stamp and then submitted our visa paperwork at the Haute Commissionaire’s office.  We attempted to get signed up for a local wifi service, but we could not convince anyone to give us a local address.  We will have to work on this when we return in June with the boat.

And of course, we met with the U.S. Consulate who told us wild stories and became a new friend.  He  notarized our documents and we gave them to our agent to fedex them to the states.

Matt has to get a French HAM license or our SSB radio.  Evidently, his U.S. HAM license is not valid or legal with our current equipment in French Polynesia.  So, he had to get a French HAM license.  We got the proper forms and email address to send off when we return to the boat.

After two days of running all over the island to complete our business, we spent the 3rd and final day playing tourist.  We drove around the entire island and even saw a little bit of Tahiti Iti.  It is not a big island so the round trip would probably only take you 2.5 hours if you did not stop.

Grottes de Maraa

Along the coast of Tahiti we came across the Grotties de Maraa.  Thinking this had to be a “grotto” we hopped out and jumped on the lush, over populated path.  We came across a strange tree that had roots growing from high branches and a beautiful pyramid red flower.

Grotes in Tahiti Walking Path

Grotes in Tahiti Walking Path

There were two grottes along this path.  The first one appeared to have an enormous weeping wall that steadily dripped fresh water into the pool below.  The lily pads were easily plucked from the water, but from a far they appeared for form a pretty green highway to the cave.

Grottes

Grottes de Maraa

The second grottes had a wide variety of plants, ferns, flowers, and trees growing off the side of the wall leading to the fresh water pool.  It was as if they formed a layered curtain to hide the entrance for intruders.  Such incredibly beauty!

Grottes de Maraa

Grottes de Maraa

Les Tres Cascades

About 10 miles from Papeete, the main town, we found Les Tres Cascades.  We were running out of time so we only walked to one of the falls, but it is my understanding that it is the prettiest.

Tres Cascades (three waterfalls) which are all over 300′ tall.  The myth is a powerful chief forbade all the males in the town from speaking or interacting with his beautiful daughter or risk death.  At 17 she secretly met a wizard of the valley who hid them behind a waterfall so her guards could not find them.  In addition, he curtained another waterfall to hide the guards.  Thus creating the tres casacades.

On the way to the entrance, we captured one of the falls.  The interesting thing to me was that many small shacks were at the base of these stunning waterfalls.

Les Tres Cascades

Les Tres Cascades

Les Tres Cascades

Les Tres Cascades

Tou du Souffleur (Blow Hole) 1-collage w/ 3 pics

Perched along the rocky coast of Tahiti and bordered by a scenic black sand beach, Arahoho Blowhole is one of the island’s most visited natural wonders. As waves crash against the shore, a powerful geyser-like eruption sends spectacular plumes of water into the air out of the side of the rocks.

Blow Hole

Blow Hole

We did a lot of business and frequented a few bars at the Marina Taina.

Tahiti Marina Tainia

Tahiti Marina Tainia

Beautiful sunset from the Pink Coconut bar

Sunset from Pink Coconut, Tahiti

Sunset from Pink Coconut, Tahiti

All said and done, Tahiti is a very green, lush, vibrant island.  We were mostly doing “city” stuff so we did not see the splendor of the island, the white sand beaches, turquoise waters or serene scenes.  Hopefully, we will when we come back with the boat!

French Poly Dancer

Heritage Festival in the Gambiers

Yeah, we made it over 3500nm from Chile to the South Eastern side of French Polynesia.  It certainly wasn’t an easy passage, but it was much better experience than what we later hear from other cruisers. Many crossed from Panama, Mexico, and Ecuador.  Some of them took up to 42 days to cross, but most took around 25 days.  And nobody arrived to the Gambiers Heritage Festival.  If I might be so bold to say…we chose a better route.

We first saw land in the wee hours of the morning.  There are 14 small islands that make up the Gambier archipelago, but there are only 5 that are visited by outsiders.  It was a beautiful site to see this lush hill side.

Arriving Gambiers

Arriving Gambiers

It was smooth sailing until we turned to enter the channel.  The wind was howling at over 30 kts, we were burying the bow of our boat 2-3′ of water and it was a skinny pass between coral reefs.  Thank goodness we have good charts.

Rikitea is the main town of the Gambiers Islands and it is located on Mangareva.  This anchorage was better than the channel, but it was still rolly and we were seeing white caps all around. 90 meters of chain was dropped in 18 meters of water.  We were immediately greeted by fellow cruisers that we had met in Bonaire and Panama.  There were also several boats that we recognized as are part of the Panama Posse, a group we joined to get to know other cruisers heading to French Poly.

Heritage Festival

It was fortuitous that we arrived just in time to participate in the Gambiers Heritage Festival.  We of course did not know what the Heritage Festival entailed, but we did know it was a party or sorts!

The festival actually started the day before we arrived and would last for 4 days.  The entire island is on holiday even the festivities are only in the evenings.  Dancers and musicians from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hao, Makemo, and Mangareva were competing for prizes.

Regardless, it appears they have learned how to shake their hips in a way that fascinated me.  I too will learn how to do a French Polynesian dance, some day soon!

French Polynesian dancers at Heritage Festival

French Polynesian dancers at Heritage Festival

COSTUMES

A theme is designed first, then each dancer creates their own costume. The outfits are made from local plants and flowers and accented with feathers.    So, even though they look similar from afar, up close they are an individual display of beauty. Solo dancers, who were highlighted throughout the night, had their own unique costume that accentuated their beauty.

The women had a variety of costumes as well.  There were at least two women who were singled out in a few dances.

Music

The musicians from each island mostly played a variety of drums.  Or at least what we westerners would call drums, I am sure they had Polynesian names for each instrument.  Each island group had a very different beat and sound making their performances enchanting.

Beautiful dancers at the Heritage Festival

In addition to the variety of dances each night, they had vendors selling their local wares including pearl jewelry, hand carved oyster shells, and Polynesian scarves, hats, and wraps.  What was more surprising was that the majority of the local women all wore pearls.  Either earrings, necklaces, bracelets, hair clips, but something had a pearl in it.  Their every day jewelry.  Surprising when I am used to only seeing pearls at formal events.

At the end of the last day, they had spiritual leaders (standing on rock) ask the dancers to go into the crowd, gather a partner and bring them out to the center area for a dance party.

Group dance at the Heritage Festival

Group dance at the Heritage Festival

Festival Bonus:

In addition to the performances at the Heritage Festival, they also had several booths selling Polynesian items including pearls, clothing, and sundries.

After everyone was done dancing, they fed everyone!  And I mean everyone, all the dancers, performers, locals, cruisers, and tourists.  I completely failed to get a photo of the food, but I promise you, it was unique!

This was a magnificent way to start off our time in French Polynesia.  As if they were welcoming us to their country, their islands, and their homes.  The Heritage Festival will always remind me of the Gambiers.