Tin Tin's Sailing Calendar

Sunday, 7 May 2017


We were collected in a big fast workboat by the mayor's son, Oro, and his mate Norbay and sped across the lagoon to a collection of sheds on stilts in the middle. Here we were shown the skilful process of farming pearls. They hauled cages out of the deep clear and Norbay pulled out a rope of old looking oyster shells, cut them off , and then opened them a crack and nested half a plastic clothes peg to keep them open. The tray of prepared shells was passed to Oro, who chose one with the right colour mother of pearl , and opened it. From this he cut a thin strip of the lip which secretes the pearl. This was carefully cleaned and then chopped into 2mm wide squares.

I had always thought that pearl farmers popped a grain of sand into the oysters and then had to wait many years for a pearl. However, Oro showed us the technique learnt from his father, who in turn had learnt from the Japanese. He mounted a shell in a clamp at his work desk, inserted metal foreclosure which prised it open. He then took one of an array fine tools reminiscent of dentistry and fished inside the oyster, pulling out a perfect blue black pearl, balanced on a little ring at the end of his probe. He then selected a ball made of shell, which was larger than the pearl, and with great care inserted it back into a special sac in the oyster. Each oyster is used to make 4 pearls in successive years. The shell for the spheres comes from Mississippi and is sent to Japan to be manufactured. The balls are treated with antiseptic to avoid infecting the oyster. The first seeding of the oyster is critical, as a small shell sphere is placed in contact with the small 2mm square of tissue harvested from the donor oyster. It must be carefully done so that the host grows pearl of the right colour and surrounds the ball of shell perfectly. If an oyster produces a nice spherical first pearl it is reseeded with a larger shell ball, but there is no need to add the piece of tissue that is used to seed it the first time, as it will now continue to produce the same colour pearl each time. Poor placement results in misshapen pearls, or in rejection of the ball. If the oyster produces an irregular shaped pearl it is not used again. Oro said that 50% success rate was the minimum he could accept. He had hired 4 Chinese workers last year but although they had worked fast, their success rate was terribly low, but he didn't find that out till a year later. He said he would hire locals next time.

His friend Norbay had worked there for six years, but had now set up on his own as an eleveur. He put strings of fuzzy material in the lagoon to which oyster seeds would attach. Once he had grown them to a reasonable size, Oro would buy 20,000 a month at 50 cents each. During the season he and his seeding team would work for three months seeding 500 oysters a day each. He reckoned he had 300,000 oysters on the buoyed lines radiating from his work island. However it is hard to get started as he must pay the government to lease his 38 hectare concession,many then it takes four years before any return can be had. He remembers that his father eclipsed 16million Pacific Francs (CFP) for 700 pearls taken to Tahiti for sale. His last harvest was 10,000 pearls, but they only sold for 9 million CFP. Sales happen every three months in Papeete, where Chinese and Japanese buyers come, look over the pearls I offer and make sealed bids to each vendor. As well as dropping prices, there have been years when the oysters died from pollution resulting from over-exploitation of the lagoon.

As a finale he cleaned off a number of rejected oysters and cut out the muscle, laid them in a shell and squeezed lime juice over them. Crunchy and delicious!

He sped us back to his home and invited us in. The big screen TV came on for the soccer World Cup final between Brazil and Tahiti, and Norbay was excitedly cheering on his nephew at No. 8 and his mate, Jo, the goal keeper. Sadly Jo let in 6 goals, and Tahiti scored zero. Nonetheless it was a victory to be in the final. What was new to me was that it was the beach soccer final! A good one to add to the Olympics!

Oro brought out pearls and jewellery made by his sister, and we pored over them looking for a beautiful memento. A string of black pearls was about £350, and a bracelet £50. Unfortunately we were low on cash, but everyone came away as a satisfied customer!

Meanwhile my planned exit for Ahé was getting short on time, and so after giving us a fresh coconut to drink, and showing us the sack of coconut crabs that he was sending by plane to his mum in Tahiti, he dropped us back to the boat. We were away quickly and motoring flat out managed to force our way out past the incoming flood tide by 12:30 and set sail the 29 miles to Ahé, last visited by Justin 42 years ago. Once in the lagoon we will have to traverse 5 miles of coral heads to reach the village, or if the light fails us try to anchor just inside the lagoon.

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