In my limited French, this is what I have come to understand about Tahitian pearls. Apparently, there is a pearl-governing body in French Polynesia that buys all of the pearls from the little farms around the Tahitian islands regardless of quality and only permits the perfect ones to be sold for export.As far as I can tell they crush any with imperfections and dump them back into the sea!It makes me cringe!Sounds like this is designed to maintain high quality and a sparkling reputation for exported pearls.The little farms don’t care; they’re still being paid for all their pearls, but it’s the jewelers that are making the profit from the deal. We did, however, ferret out some exceptions.
Few are interested in trying to sell flawed pearls.It took us four months to track down a source!And then it was all hush-hush, doing deals in back rooms, shifty eyes and whispers. I think the imperfect pearls are the most interesting. Some look like inverted Saturn, others like snowglobes, or tear drops. All different colors, lusters, and pretty good size too. We felt like true pirates, smuggling out handfuls of contraband treasure stowed away below decks. Flew them back to the states disguised in an M&M bag. Tricksters.
Motored out of Passe Paipai before sunrise in flat water leaving Taha’a in our wake on our twenty mile passage to what is reportedly the most beautiful island in the world. We got complacent with the flat seas and had a horrific accident just outside the pass, completely destroying THE most important piece of equipment on the boat: the French Press. NOOOOO!!! Left it sitting on the table and ran right through a ferry’s heavy wake. We weren’t sure how we’d make it the next 19 miles to Bora Bora uncaffeinated, but somehow we got through it, despite steering by hand.
Bora’s twin peaks on a central masiff rises sharply from sprawling fingers of the island. All around the island is a ring of taller motu just inside a reef. The lagoon between the island and the motu is deep and dark, and the outer lagoon is bright, clear and shallow.
We motored south through the lagoon then around the inner island of Toopua where we anchored in seven meters of clear sand as far as the eye could see and the kind of electric blue water that makes you pinch yourself and grin like and idiot. I was in the water almost before the anchor.
Took the dinghy over to the pass just south of Toopua to check out a drift dive we’d heard about. Clouds of fish greeted us, looking for hand-outs, but unfortunately I’d left my bread and multiplication worksheets back on the boat. We drifted along the pass and spotted a spotted eagle ray, then two together, then four in a group, then FIFTY in a swarm! They are usually solitary so they may have been mating. As we watched them a fifteen foot manta ray winged past us. Of course the camera was dead for this round, so you’ll have to take my spotty word on it.
It had been a rough day, what with missing pictures of the spectacular rays and the looming prospect of a morning without proper coffee so we rinsed off back at the boat and made a couple margaritas with our contraband tequila. Sat on the trampoline alone in the lagoon and played guitar. The night was so bright and the lagoon so calm you could see the reflection of the Milky Way in the water. Looked like the bright band dove into the sea and swam up to the boat. What a place.
The next day we went back and snorkeled the same spot armed with the camera. Eagle rays showed up, but not in the number of the previous day. No mantas though. Wah wah.
A few days of enjoying the lagoon and it was back to some business. We picked up our much awaited part, which necessitated a two-mile dinghy ride to the airport on an outer motu. Pretty cool to be able to dinghy up to an airport though. Installed the part and tested out our autohelm. Looks like we’re in business. Welcome back Otto! Now get to work!
The outer islands of Bora Bora are unreal. The lagoon is otherworldly blue and the motu are packed with luxury hotels masquerading as bungalows. The main island is home to regular local folk. The streets are dirt, the town is small and rough around the edges. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
Looked at our itinerary and decided we better get moving. We’ve been three months in French Polynesia! We’re planning on heading from Bora Bora straight to Tonga with a possible stop in Nuie if weather permits. So we’re anchored off the little town getting the boat in passage making shape. We fueled, watered, provisioned, cooked meals, changed oil, and the like. It’ll be twelve days across to Tonga and we’ve been spoiled by the short-hops afforded by French Polynesia. To give you some perspective, sailing the 1200 miles from Bora to Tonga will be like traveling from Minneapolis to Miami at a brisk walking pace for two weeks. Maybe a jog if the winds are favorable. Wish us luck.
Bye-bye French Polynesia!
For folks who’d like a perspective on the distances we’ve covered here, this map overlays the country on top of a map of Europe. Pretty neat. Red = our trip aboard Tayrona.
Sailed out of the Fare pass in Huahine and headed west downwind with following seas, running wing-wing to Taha’a….a….ah.. a… ah.. aaaa. Ugly clouds obscured the island as we crossed the twenty easy miles, but thankfully never hammered us. I love weather that’s “All-Bark, No-Bite”, or as my buddy Hal puts it, “All Hat and No Cattle”.
Once through the easy Toahotu pass we cut slightly south and into the deep Haamene Bay. We’re not sure what’s up with the island’s obsession with unnecessary vowels; I bet they’d get along well with Brits when they visit. I’m think they’d love the flavour, colour, and granduure of the island. We picked up a mooring in 100 feet of water courtesy of Hotel Hibiscus who we heard did great tours of the local vanilla and pearl farms on the island. We radiod them to see if they’d show us around the next day, then settled in to enjoy the huge empty bay and clearing skies.
The next day we met up with Marke, whose French father and Polynesian mother ran the pension. In my mind, Marke is spelled like that in following with the unnecessary vowels. You think I’m kidding, but when he showed us around the island, all of the signs seem to be missing all the consonants. Like when we drove through the town of Faaaha. Sounds like something I’ve shouted in front of my students when I forget to move the decimal and end up with completely the wrong answer twenty minutes later. “FAAAHA!”
Our first stop was at a local vanilla farm. Apparently, 80% of the French Polynesian vanilla comes from Taha’a. Teva, our host, showed us his covered grow house that keeps birds and other pests out. He said each vine takes 3 years to mature and give flower. The beans take nine months to develop after the flower is pollinated. Then the beans need to be sun-dried which takes another five months. So it takes over a year to go from flower to sellable bean. One kilogram (2.2 pounds, you lackey) of dried beans though goes for about $400-500 USD.
It’s a hybrid of the Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar, and needs to be pollinated by hand since the insects that normally do the job weren’t brought to the island with the first plants. So our host, Teva, showed us how to pollinate the flowers. It made me blush, but it’s all in the name of science and fine cuisine!
The whole thing was run out of his house with his wife. Sounds like it takes a good deal of time and capital to set up, but then runs pretty smoothly. Teva said he sells mostly to local and foreign restaurants looking for organic, independently grown vanilla. Great niche.
Then it was off to the pearl farm along the winding coastal road. Gorgeous weather and a great view of Bora Bora.
Out on the docks our hostess, Magda, showed Miranda and I the process of making a pearl. The oysters are mostly a breed from the Tuamotus and are now grown here, hung in baskets under floats in the lagoon. Oysters will coat foreign objects in their iridescent mother of pearl. When that happens in nature you get a gorgeous object the size and shape of a Nerdz candy, but certainly not your gramma’s pearl earrings style.
To get that shape the oysters are grown for a couple years until they’re big enough to handle a nucleus, or sphere cut from a swarthy clam from the Mississippi river. So a white marble is put into the oyster, and twelve to eighteen months later the thing is coated to an appropriate thickness with mother of pearl. Seems like cheating, right?
If an oyster spits out the nucleus or coats it only partially, which happens about half the time, the oyster will never be a pearl bearer and is thus is eaten with lemon and garlic. If the oyster coats the nucleus well, which can be discerned through careful, non-destructive surgery, a larger nucleus is inserted and the oyster is returned to the farm. Most productive oysters can make four pearls before they’re tuckered out. Magda showed me all about where to squeeze to get the pearl to pop out. She said I’m pretty good at it, but I’m sure she says that to all the guys. Geeze, here I thought vanilla pollination would be the only thing that made me blush on this excursion.
The next day the good weather held and we were off to the other side of Taha’a. On the northwest side of the island are a couple motus; we anchored just off Ilot Tautau, encrusted with expensive palapa-style bungalows stretching out across the water. They had a really lovely view until we showed up and plunked our anchor just offshore in the eight feet of crystalline water and clear sand. Suckers!
Between Tautau and the next motu north, Mararare, there’s a pass out to the reef that’s 300 feet wide and a quarter mile long. The channel is only three feet at the deepest and it’s a snorkeling gold mine. It’s called the Coral Gardens, but Coral Maze might be more appropriate. The corals are healthy, colorful, and dense. And the fish must be used to getting fed by the tourists because upon entry they swarm you. If you open your hands to them they nip at your empty palms. I lost sight of Miranda a few times behind clouds of Pacific Double Saddle Butterflyfish and Convict Surgeonfish.
Even though we didn’t bring any bread to feed the fish I still think they were happy to see us.
Two days of almost constant immersion and then we were off to Bora Bora, purportedly the most beautiful island in the world!