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Black Pearls

The lagoons at the heart-breakingly beautiful French Polynesian island of Mangareva produce the best black pearls in the world, at least according to the pearl farmers who live and work there. The farms don’t look like much – just wooden shacks over the water built on concrete pillars on top of a reef and a bunch of buoys in the surrounding waters. These shacks look like casual fishing houses one might find on a lake somewhere. Despite their modest appearance, what they produce is truly spectacular.

While in Mangareva, Picton Castle crew befriended a number of pearl farmers, or more accurately, they befriended us. There are quite a few different farms surrounding the island and each farm employs anywhere from two to twenty people, depending on the size of the operation. Within the farm there are a number of different jobs, so the guys we met identified themselves as divers, surgeons or bosses. Some of the farmers invited us out to their farm, so they came to collect five of us in their big aluminum work-boat the next morning and take us to the other side of the island. Upon arriving at the farm, we got out of the boat and went inside. There were about ten people working that day, two of them wearing wetsuits (we were right in assuming they were the divers). That morning they had collected about 40 cages of oysters and brought them to the farm building. The buoys we had seen above the water mark where the cages are, underneath the water, attached to long lines between the buoys. The cages are kept at depths of up to 12 metres and the divers use only snorkels as they plunge below the surface to collect them. Once the cages are at the farm, they are opened up and the oysters are removed. Using big butchers knives, any extra growth on the outside of the shell is scraped off. The oysters are stacked in crates and passed to the next station where another person uses what looks like a fine chisel to open the oyster shell a quarter of an inch, enough to stick in a plastic wedge. From there the oysters go back into the crates and on to the surgeons. Picking up one oyster at a time, the surgeon kneads the soft tissue inside the shell to feel for a pearl. If something is felt, the surgeon inserts a tool which pries the shell open about half an inch – just enough to get the pearl out without separating the tissue from the interior of the shell. Each surgeon’s workbench (there were two surgeons at the farm we visited, including the one woman working at the farm) has a clamp with a spring mounted on the bench for them to put the oyster in so that they can work with both hands while the shell is at eye level. With a tiny scalpel, the surgeon makes a very small incision in the oyster. Using a long tool with a small metal ring on the end, the surgeon kneads the pearl toward the incision, popping it out and scooping it out of the shell. If the pearl is good, something of the same size is inserted back in through the incision to the pearl’s original resting place and the spreader is removed. If the pearl is misshapen, deformed, ridged, or nonexistent, the oyster is removed from service. Each oyster can be grafted in this way four times, each time producing a successively larger pearl. The oysters we saw were on their second graft, so the surgeons were replacing the pearls in the good pearl producing oysters with freshwater pearls from the Mississipi delta for the oyster to use them as a core to continue to form an even bigger black pearl around. All of the oysters that have been reseeded are put back into cages. The cages look to me like shoe racks – about two feet wide and four feet long with rows of pockets on one side and a line on top to tie it to the line below the water. Each oyster shell has a small hole drilled in it for a piece of fishing line to go through. The oyster is placed in the pocket, then the flap of the pocket is closed and the oyster is tied in place to keep it in the pocket and to keep the pocket shut. As the oysters are placed back into the cages, the cages are hung below the dock at the farm building so the oysters spend as little time as possible out of the water. At the end of the work day, the cages are brought back out to the buoys and tied to the lines below the water again. In order to produce the best result, the oysters need to have maximum water circulation around them. It takes two years to grow a pearl, but the cages are brought out of the water for cleaning every three months or so. They used to use scrub brushes to remove the underwater growth, but now they use pressure washers. The farm we visited has between 200,000 and 300,000 oysters, kept about 20 to a cage, so I imagine the cleaning is constant – as soon as they have them all clean, it would be time to start again. While we were at the farm the guys opened up the rejected oysters and cut out just the muscle for us to eat raw with some lemon juice. Kind of like a scallop. We also got a whole bag of oyster muscles to take back to the ship for the rest of the crew to enjoy as well. We were then each invited to choose one pearl – not the rejected ones, but a high quality round one with lustrous colour. They are best displayed in salt water and we learned that the best way to polish them is to put them in a jar with a lot of salt and a little water and shake. The value of the pearl is determined by its size and colour – some shine red, blue or green. Shape seems to be less important, as long as it is smooth and shiny. A single pearl, one that is large, perfect and has good colour, can be worth thousands of dollars. Throughout our time in Mangareva, a number of our crew recieved some black pearls as gifts and some by trading. The slightly misshapen pearls are of little value to the farmers because they’re not worth much commercially, but to me they’re just as interesting. Many of our gang can now say they have some South Seas treasure!

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