Secret of the black pearl

When we sailed inside the reefs surrounding Gambier, we saw houses on stilts dotting every bay. We thought they were hotels or villas, but they turned out to be instrumental in helping us unlock the secret of the black pearl. Between the islands, we had to steer wild zig-sag courses, keeping a vigilant eye around us, to avoid thousands of hard mooring balls that seemed to be everywhere. We assumed they were attached to the bottom, but couldn’t be sure that they were drifting or what their purpose was, because nothing was apparent when you looked at them from the surface. Darkness was coming so we anchored and waited. There were far more mooring balls then there were boats or people for that matter on Gambier, so what were they used for?

The answers came in little by little. We were told by other sailboats not to steer too close to the buoys, because they were always found in pairs and there were lines going between them at depths between 3-5 meters. When we asked what they were for, we were told that it had something to do with the pearl farms. Whenever we identified buoys that appeared to be in pairs, we aimed in the middle, to hit the slackest part of the rope between them, to avoided being tangled. We figured that if any of the buoys started “trailing” us, we’d screwed up. So far so good and no entanglements.

Since all of the buoys were a bit of a mystery, we organized a visit to a pearl farm and then we were finally able to uncover what to us was the secret of the the black pearl. Here is what we’ve learned:

In Gambier the climate and conditions are perfect for cultivating black pearls. Black pearls are the most valuable and rare pearls you can find and they fetch premium prices all over the globe. The biggest market for them right now is in China. The way they cultivate them is as follows. First they have to grow the oysters for three years, until they are big enough to cultivate a pearl of decent size inside.

Then they buy round shells from the Mississippi river that they send to China for treatment, followed by Japan for finalizing, before they end up here in Gambier. These shells are perfectly round and are sized according to the normal diameter of the pearls they are cultivating. There are stories of pearl farmers using marbles, plastic and other things inside their oysters, but not here in Gambier.

The Mississippi shells are inserted inside the oyster shells in a process that looks like a dentist working on your teeth. The person inserting them, makes a small incision and inserts the shell.

Once inside the oyster, the small round shell is slowly covered by enamel and becomes a pearl. A surprising fact is that the pearl inside the oyster revolves around, like the Earth. Faster in summer, slower in winter. Summers ensure that the pearl grows thicker and gets bigger, while in winters it is “polished” and gets its beauty as it takes on its color and shine. They harvest the pearls every 18 months when between 1,2 – 1,7mm of enamel has grown on the outside of the Mississippi shell they put in the middle.

The way they grow is that they attach 12-18 oysters to a hard plastic webbing that they fold into a “pack” that they weight down, add 3-5 meters of line to it and attach to a buoy. They then string a number of buoys together with roping running between them, so that the packs won’t drift off and also so that they will be easy to check.

Though the pearls take 18 months to reach the right size, the oysters are lifted out of the water every 3 months. Then they are pressure washed to blast away any growth, because if the shells get heavier, they sink lower down and this will affect the sunlight and nutrient levels they get. In the bays on Gambier, the oysters are only able to utilize around 20% of the nutrients in the water, but it is enough for many millions of oysters.

They use freedivers to dive on every buoy throughout the year to ensure that everything is OK. The pearl divers of old times, looking for oysters amongst the coral, are a distant memory here, because demand has outstripped supply, so they have modernized their techniques.

When they harvest the pearls they have a range of criteria that they use for sorting them. The best and most expensive pearls are the ones that are perfectly round and have dark gray and green color. Obviously the larger they are the better, but it is also much more difficult to cultivate large pearls, so most pearl farmers focus on normal sized pearls.

What was also interesting is that in the past there was a Chinese person known as the “King of the Pearls” that controlled every pearl farm in Gambier (and possibly also Tuamotos). His iron grip has been broken and now the locals produce as much (or as little) as they desire.

All of this was told us by the Polynesian pearl farmers and some elements are bound to have been lost in translation between us talking in French, Polynesian and English, so if you see glaring errors, then I’m sorry, it was caused by linguistic misunderstandings.

We visited two pearl farms and got to see all sides of the process. The pearl farmers and people working there were very friendly and explained the process properly as well as answered any question we might have. On top of that we were told to pick an oyster each from the batch they had harvested and we got to keep the pearl inside. I think Maggie lucked out, finding a large round pearl.

In addition, Maggie now has a new pair of pearl ear-rings and a bunch of loose pearls. We also got a kilogram of oyster meat that we brought back onboard Stella Polaris and used in a fantastic meal with the following dishes: sushi rolls, sashimi, gazpacho, pan seared and ceviche. It was a fantastic meal where we learned just how excellent and versatile the oyster meat is. We have now unlocked the secret of the black pearl and though it’s a far cry from the Pirates of the Caribbean, it was still a lot of fun.