Two of the biggest products the Tuamotus export for the world economy are copra (dried coconut meat for use in making coconut oil) and cultured pearls. Given all we’ve mentioned here about the ecology of the atolls, these should seem a natural fit. On Wednesday we joined Fernando for a tour of his pearl farm so we could get a closer look at the business behind the clusters of buoys and stilt work-houses that dot Manihi’s lagoon.

Fernando speaks limited English, and we speak virtually no French, so we were relieved when he stopped to pick up the Swiss family on Riga II, a boat we’ve encountered a few times along the way from Panama to here. They were kind enough to translate anything we may have lost in the language barrier, so it turned out to be a very educational experience.

Oyster collector

Oyster collector

Fernando motored us out into the center of the lagoon, to the location of his collector strings. In the past, Pacific pearl farmers made the oyster collectors out of tangled twigs and branches, hanging them from underwater lines about 4m from the surface, but the collectors were subject to rot and breakage, and were therefore not reusable. Nowadays the farmers borrow an idea from Australian pearl farmers and use matted masses of plastic string as collectors, allowing them to be reused time and again with minimal fuss. The collectors hang in the water and tiny baby oysters floating in the current grab on, starting the farming process. Fernando pulled a collector off his line and asked us to “chercher le nac” or find the oysters. They were smaller than a pinky nail, nearly flat and dark green.

After several months, Fernando comes out and cleans off the pipi (another type of bivalve that calls the collectors home), whose shells he opens and scrapes, cleaning them so their lustrous inner shells can be used in the making of curtains and other household crafts. He then puts the collector, full of only oysters, back in the water.

Once the oysters on the collector reach about 18 months of age, he pulls them off and bores a small pair of holes through the bottom, where the hinge is, and ties them to a 5-foot-long rope with fishing line. He gives the oysters another several months in the water, until they reach 10-12 cm in width, and then he seeds them with a pearl. The process looks like fine surgery.

First, he’ll pull a sampling of mature oysters off his lines, then he’ll pry and wedge each one open about an inch and check the color of the nacre, or mother of pearl, inside the oysters. When he finds one with especially good color, he sacrifices that oyster so it can be the determinant of color for all the other pearls in the set. If you graft meat from an oyster with dull nacre, then you get dull, ugly pearls.

Fernando slices off a piece of the flesh on the outer edge of the sacrificial oyster’s insides, then removes from it all traces of the black breathing apparatus. What’s left is a very fine strip, about 2mm wide, of lustrous, whitish oyster meat. The piece is then divided into tiny strips, about 2mm square.

Preparing the meat for seeding into other oysters by removing all the black parts

Preparing the meat for seeding into other oysters by removing all the black parts

Placing the abalone starter in the oyster

Placing the abalone starter in the oyster

The pearl farmer then takes each of his other oysters, slits a part of the meat referred to as the pocket, and with a flick of the wrist, inserts a sphere made of abalone shell and a piece of the grafting meat. He then removes the wedge from the oysters, reties them to the line, and puts them back in the water.

After 18 months, he harvests them and gets to see the results of his handiwork. Perfectly round, smooth pearls are the exception, not the rule, but the more practiced one gets, the more regularity he or she can achieve. Depending on the piece of grafting meat the oysters received, the resulting pearls can be anywhere from gold, to aubergine with green edges, to deep bluish grey. Not-so-good pearls can come out flat beige and muddy grey. They come in teardrop shapes, irregular shapes, like baroque pearls, and some, that reject the abalone, wind up making tiny little irregular seed pearls.

The arrow is pointing at a pearl inside the pocket

The arrow is pointing at a pearl inside the pocket

Fernando told us the oysters can be used to produce pearls up to four times. He only has to use the graft meat once, and from then on the oyster can be counted on to produce pearls consistent in color with the first. He has his favorites, but care must be taken when inserting the abalone spheres on each go-around, because sloppy work will lead to sloppily shaped pearls. The liquid inside the pocket can leak through the incision, making for an uneven coating and therefore a teardrop-shaped or less attractively irregular pearl. After 2 seedings, Fernando makes new incisions on a different side of the pocket to maintain the regularity of the pearl. Fernando and his wife can each seed 600 oysters each a day, and he claims she’s better than he is.

Fernando motored us over to a set of his mature oysters to give us the opportunity to “play the jackpot.” He encouraged everyone to jump in, and we were allowed to choose two oysters each, the contents of which were ours for the taking. I went after mine with gusto, but that fishing line tying them to the ropes was strong! I finally had to use my foot as leverage on the chain they hang from to push away while twisting the oyster around and around.

Jason picks a winner

Jason picks a winner

Lara wrestles with her oyster

Lara wrestles with her oyster

When we made our way back to his work dock, expectations were hopeful. Riga II landed 4 very nice pearls — one gold, two grey, and one aubergine and teardrop-shaped. Jason’s and mine were mostly irregular but ok, and Karen and Frank’s were along the same lines. I’ll have fun making them into some kind of pendant. None too fancy or valuable, but pretty nonetheless.

Oyster muscles with lemon juice

Oyster muscles with lemon juice

While Fernando demonstrated the seeding and grafting process on shore, we ate the remaining contents of our oysters, but it was a very different texture and taste than I am used to. Instead of eating the soft, slippery meat of the oyster, Fernando’s friend Tavo prepared the muscle of the oyster, which I assume would be too small to eat in most of the oysters we eat at home. It had the distinct texture of ceviche, firm and coated in lemon juice. I think it’s the first oyster Jason’s ever eaten that he actually liked.

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