Manihi - Black Pearls, Sailmail base station and Big Boys Scuba Diving. 17:08:00S 149:20:57W

Zipadedoda of Dart
David H Kerr
Mon 21 Apr 2008 18:25

We are on passage to Papeete, Tahiti, having left Resplendent Rangiroa at 1000 local time this morning. Not much wind so we are motoring the 210nm and expect to be in Papeete by lunchtime Monday 21st local time.


Meanwhile back on Manihi, we had another action packed day lined up. Firstly to the Black Pearl Farm. Owned by Fernand’s family. On this occasion Fernand was busy, so his son was pressed into service, having been up since 0200 making bread for the Atoll at large and then delivering it. Including personal deliveries to the BWR yachts at anchor.


The first stage in our education on the Black Pearl farming process was to visit the Oyster beds.  The first stop was to the area where the young oysters are captured. These are buoys, with course string attached to them and secured to the sea bed some 18 to 22 metres below. The Oyster lava occur naturally in the waters here, so just in the same way that barnacles attach themselves to boat hulls, so it is that young oysters grow on these lines. When the oysters are approximately 1 to 2.5 inches in diameter the string is raised and the black pearl oysters only, are selected. This seemed to be about one in 6 of those oysters on the string we saw.



  The first stage Oyster is at the bottom of the picture with a harvested mature oyster at the top.


These young oysters are then taken back to the Pearl Farm for the first stage in the Black Pearl cultivating process. These oysters have attached themselves naturally to the string. So the first thing that is done to them is to remove their “foot”. This is a bit like the beard on a mussel. They then have a small hole drilled on the shell, and through this hole a nylon tie wrap is inserted and then the Oyster is fixed to a new piece of string. Around 20 young Oysters are fixed to one string. These strings are then taken back to the sea, and each string of 20 oysters is attached to one of the master strings that are held in place by buoys at the surface and 2 metres below the surface and a weight on the sea bead. This process is all done manually, with the workers on this farm free diving with no Scuba equipment. Both Fernand and his son can free dive to 60 metres!!


Meanwhile back on our tour, the boat moved off to the area of mature Oysters. Fernand’s son popped on a pair of huge fins, and a  mask and with knife in hand dove over the side to retrieve some “bushels” of mature Oysters. As he cut these off and came back to the surface, they were eagerly collected by the waiting Ralliers. Each Bushel was quite heavy, but Hugh (Stargazer) and Bob (Gaia) held them up in a manly fashion to be photographed.



The “deal” here was that if you bought a bushel for USD 100, they would be opened in the farm for you and you could keep all the Pearls in them, as well as the shells and the meat. It is a complete lottery as to how many Pearls you may get and of what quality out of a bushel of 20. So its  a novel way of gambling…….


We then set off for the farm, where all the processing of the Oysters takes place.


   The view from the farm………..


We were then introduced to the lady who “operates“ on the Oysters. She is a sort of Oyster Gynaecologist! Firstly she opens mature Oysters until she finds one that has exactly the right colour of Mother of Pearl, to produce Black Pearls. She then removed a specific area of tissue and then cut this into little parcels, each one approximately one eighth of an inch square and no more that a sixteenth thick.


She then set about operating on the batch of Oysters which were to be cultivated.


   The tray of three sizes of white nucleus (balls) is in the plastic tray in the centre of the picture


The Oysters are opened using a special tool and then held in place with a clamp. If they are opened too far it kills them. Too little and it is not possible to gain access to the all important sex organ of the Oyster. A singe piece of tissue is then attached to a nucleus. The nucleus are made from polished Abalone shells and are imported from Japan. They come in three sizes. The fused nucleus and the tissue are then placed into the sex organ of the Oyster. The nucleus is used so that the pearl can grow around it and the tissue is used to provide the DNA, for the best possible Black Pearl colouring. Once a batch is completed, they are fixed in lots of 20 to a new string and taken back to the sea farm where they are left for 14 months to produce their first Pearl. They are then harvested once more. The resultant pearl removed and a new larger nucleus and tissue introduced to grow a larger pearl. This process is repeated 3 times, then the Oyster gets to the end of its productive life.



The next stage of our visit was for those visitors who had purchased a Bushel of Oysters, to have the pleasure of rummaging through the shell contents to see if there is a Black Pearl. Harriet from Anahi did really well and had 16 Pearls of various sizes shapes and colours. As you can see from the picture below, she was rather pleased with her haul!



WE then spent a lazy hour or so cutting down more coconuts and drinking the contents and munching on the flesh.


This was then followed by a trip to another larger Black Pearl farm, where they have a shop and a Thai lady who makes up jewellery from the Pearls. The range was breathtaking as were some of the prices. But there was something for everyone, and all the lady’s left with a smile on their faces and some “treasure” in their handbags! Meanwhile all the chaps were wearing that resigned “It’s going to cost me” look.


The find visit of the day was to Xavier’s Island and a visit to his Sailmail installation. Most impressive too. With a huge solar panel that tracks the position of the sun to always gain optimal power, a large wind turbine and a water turbine. All of this input is stored on 36,000amper Hours worth of batteries. Enough power to run the station for 4 days with no sun, no wind, and no tide. Amazing.




That evening we went t the Black Pearl Resort hotel for diner. Very mediocre meal, expensive and surly service. But they have a dive shop………….


So on our final morning I went for a scuba dive in what is called the circus. This is just on the inside of the entrance channel and there is a “cleaner station”. These are tiny fish who provide a “service” to other sea creatures by cleaning their gills for them and eating the proceeds.


There were loads of sharks and other fish about but the star attraction was the Manta Rays. These would glide right over you if you held your breath when they got close. I had one no more than 18” above my head and I could clearly see all the cleaner wrasse in his mouth and gills. Awesome!


Well I can See Tahiti clearly now, (very impressive too), so it is time to go back on deck.