Saturday, June 25, 2011

Black Pearl Market - The Art of Buying Black Pearls in the Tuamotus

I'm seated at a table in Makemo Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago in the middle of a lovely warm and sunny afternoon with boxes of small dark roundish objects in front of me, but my eyes are feeling like they are going to pop out of their sockets. I have been staring at hundreds and hundreds of shimmering black pearls in various luscious tones of greens, blues, champagnes, blacks, silvers and greys. There are round ones, oval ones, interestingly misshapen ones, and ones with circles embedded around them. There are small ones and, well, smaller ones. It's all relative. That's the problem. An 8 mm pearl is not so different from an 11 mm pearl. And a shiny one is not so different from, well, another shiny one. And I've been here for what seems like hours, trying to pick out the shiniest, the most interesting colored, the neatest shaped pearls. I'm not sure anymore when they all started looking the same. And it only gets worse when I begin to look for a match for a pair of earrings. By now I cannot tell whether one is worth $1000 or $1. I've lost sight of the forest for the trees. Or was it the trees for the forest? Or...

Okay. Refocus. Rethink my objective. Take a deep breath. And go through the piles again.

Such is the ritual of purchasing black pearls in the Tuamotus in French Polynesia, a paradise group of islands in the middle of the South Pacific. And it's a darn good time. Especially when you can walk away with some great finds.

French Polynesia's black pearl market got underway in the 1960's and has seen its ups and downs. At one time, there were dozens of pearl farms on almost every inhabited atoll of the Tuamotus, but at some point the market got so saturated that the price of pearls plummeted. The result is that there are now only a few family-run operations while some of the larger foreign corporate businesses have taken over much of the industry. We visited Dream Pearls, a larger family farm on Fakarava, just outside the town of Rotoava, run by Lulu Steiner. Lulu is a German Swiss man who came to French Polynesia 25 years ago where he met and married his beautiful wife Mimi, who runs the jewelry shop in town near the harbor.

The four year process of creating these beautiful cultured gems is absolutely fascinating. It begins on some of the smaller atolls where divers find baby oysters and sell them to the farms for 1 Euro each. Lulu's operation purchases 25,000 oysters every month. When these oysters get big enough, they are brought into the grafting houses, which are essentially wooden shacks on stilts just above the aqua colored lagoon's edge to ensure that the shells will spend as little time as possible out of water. Here, the shells are pried open. A nucleus (which resembles a white ball) together with a tiny piece of mantle tissue (the organ which secretes mother of pearl) from an oyster shell found in the Mississippi of all places, are then inserted inside the host oyster shell. The mantle tissue initiates the grafting process so that the oyster can now secrete the colored mother of pearl around the nucleus. The host oyster is made to believe that these organic matters are its own and continues to grow the pearl inside it for another 18 months. To complicate matters, the shells must be cleaned and disinfected every 4 months in a huge machine that looks like a commercial dish washer to keep parasites and bacteria at bay. This means that on a rotating basis, Lulu's staff cleans over 400,000 shells each each year, four times over the life of the oyster shell while growing its pearl. Pearls can grow on average up to 11 mm in size during this initial process.

More and more, however, there has been a demand for larger pearls. And so the process continues, with expert grafters sitting in grafting houses for hours each day removing the original pearl for inspection. If the pearl is near perfect, and because the pearl can only grow to be as big as the oyster's nucleus, it will get put back into the oyster with a new larger nucleus for a second and sometimes a third graft. This was the process we witnessed. As the grafter pried open the shell, she inserts her long silver tool resembling what a dentist uses to test your teeth for cavities. When she pulls out what appeared to be a perfectly shaped round lustrous black pearl, I couldn't help but feel that I was witnessing a birth. And yet most of these gems went into the bowl that meant it was not perfect enough for a second graft. During the half hour of our observation, I saw only two pearls being reinserted for a subsequent graft.

There is a notion that larger black pearls, which have been grafted two or three times, may not be as organically sound since the layers may crack with changes of temperature. Lulu assured us, however, that at his farm, only the very best pearls get grafted more than once and thus are much more valuable. There is no doubt that Lulu takes great pride in his operation, and you couldn't help but feel his pearls were, in fact, top quality.

So when we arrived in his showroom, we all went nuts over the pearls he was selling for 80,000 French Polynesian Francs - the equivalent of $10,000. He also had on display an 18 mm pearl that was too rare to be for sale, and I'll admit it was a big honking gem. Nonetheless, it would have paled in comparison to the largest recorded black pearl, at 26 mm.

Lulu's prices, which he reminded us several times were showroom prices and much less than in the jewelry shops, ranged from small 6 mm ones for 3000 Francs (about $35) up to 80,000 Francs. Then there were magnificent necklaces for thousands of dollars more. 'Nuff said. It was all so professional and civilized - and out of our price range.

This whole experience was in sharp contrast to our visit to the largest house on Makemo Atoll, an orange two-story that stood out in this small village in sharp contrast to the mostly shacks and one room cement brick homes. There we were seated at a table with boxes and boxes of pearls of all shapes and sizes and colors - and we had to fend for ourselves. The prices there were much more clearly in our price ranges, and we were able to find pearls ranging in prices that went as low as 2500 Francs (about $30) for an 11 mm pearl (compared to Lulu's $100 for the same size). Unfortunately for us, we didn't realize how good Makemo's prices were at the time for what seems to have been equivalent quality, since our visit to Dream Pearls on Fakarava came only later. We still managed to drop a good amount of change on Makemo nonetheless - cash only as one should expect in all the off-the-beaten-path atolls where most visitors come by boat and the clientele tend to be local Polynesians. In contrast, on the more touristed atolls like Fakarava, many shops and farms accept credit cards.

Like diamonds, black pearls are graded based on several categories, such as luster or sheen (the best ones should reflect the light creating a mirror-like effect), size (obviously the larger ones are more valuable), and surface smoothness (any punctures, deposits, streaks or swellings on the surface are considered imperfections). In theory, each of these criterion can be tested by simply having a look. And based on these criteria, the pearls are graded A,B,C or D quality. Anything less than D quality are not supposed to be sold, although we found that at least a couple of the smaller shops (as well as the pearl farm we visited in Makemo) did sell these lower quality pearls at heavily discounted prices. You just have to ask for them. Our friend Diane was practically gifted several dozen of these pearls on Nuku Hiva for $1 a piece, but our experience found the lowest prices on Fakarava to be $3. Good for Danielle's beading hobby.

Beyond the above criteria, there are two more things to look for, simply based on pure preference and not affecting the quality categories. The first is color which ranges in hues and tints of reds, pinks, purples, greys, blacks, silvers, greens, blues, and champagnes. I fell in love with the green ones but it really is a personal preference. In addition, the pearls come in many shapes aside from the traditional round. We actually found the dew drops, the baroques (odd shaped) and ringed ones to be most interesting, and we of course opted mostly for these in our own purchases, with a few rounds thrown in for good measure.

I would be remiss if I recounted our tale of buying black pearls without the mention of the weight of my purse as we did so. In it I lugged a bottle of rum, some perfume and some face cream, all with the hopes of trading for pearls like our cruising guidebooks advised. No such luck - we were laughed at the first couple of times that we pulled out the items, so that by the third time I didn't even bother. It was too embarrassing. The black pearl market seems much more sophisticated than legend foretold, although with enough quantity in your check-out basket, you can still bargain down the prices in some places. The best we did was a 20% discount.

Sure we left each pearl farm and shop a bit more cross-eyed than the last. But once back at the boat, and after closely examining and comparing the purchases from our various sources, we found the trees. Or the forest. Or whatever it was we were supposed to find. In other words: We found delight and contentment in our purchases, our knowledge and understanding of a complex but graceful and beautiful process, and of another fulfilling traveler's adventure.

En route from the Tuamotus to Tahiti, French Polynesia

P.S. Pictures must follow when we get internet.
At 6/24/2011 05:31 (utc) our position was 17°27.08'S 149°18.88'W

Friday, June 24, 2011

Winter (Summer) Solstice

We've finally figured out why we're so tired. We've been sleeping close to 10 hours each night, when, back home, this is the time of year we usually gear up for later nights and tons of energy. Lately, we've been crashing at 8 p.m. and having trouble awakening at 6 a.m. to get school started by 7. What's up with that? we wondered.

We're in the southern hemisphere is what's up. June 21 is the shortest day of the year. Sunlight hours have been getting shorter, instead of longer as we're used to. It's winter here.

Not that there's not a lot of sunlight. It's gorgeous, consistently 85 degrees everyday but none of the ridiculous heat and discomfort of Mexico. But as the days got shorter, we have found we've needed more and more sleep. And we're craving carbs and hybernating a whole lot more than we're used to doing in June.

It's really amazing what your body knows without you even thinking about it.

En route Fakarava to Tahiti (when written)
Anchored in Papeete (when posted)
At 6/24/2011 02:46 (utc) our position was 17°28.37'S 149°00.88'W

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bye Bye Tuamotus! Hello Tahiti!

Well this morning we waved goodbye to the Tuamotus as we set sail on a one to two-day passage to Tahiti. We hope to get there in time for the Tahiti Moorea Sailing Rendez-vous which starts this Friday and brings together many of the boats that crossed the Pacific this season. It should also be a great opportunity to bring together lots of kid boats!

The Tuamotus have really been a highlight and I know we could have easily spent longer here. The snorkeling and diving were spectacular. I have never seen so much live coral and swimming with many sharks was exciting. The real highlight however was swimming with giant Manta Rays. These animals are amazing to watch, can have wing spans as wide as 10 feet and seem to be from another world. They would swim right up to us and around us and I was even able to touch one. I have heard stories of people even riding them but, we did not as they did not seem that receptive. We've been told that they will let you know if you can ride them though not yet sure how they share that information with us! I shared with Danielle and Harrison that that day of snorkeling might be the best they will ever have as very few people have the opportunity to see these animals let alone swim with them.

Getting to Papeete will be quite an adjustment for us. Since leaving Mexico in early April we have either been on uninhabited islands or very rural islands with populations ranging from 100 to 2000 people. Papeete, with a population of over 150,000 people will be quite an adjustment, though we are looking forward to it. Danielle, in particular as she is hoping to go see the last Harry Potter movie which she tells us is now out.

That is all for now,

Michael (in the Pacific, enroute to Tahiti)
At 6/22/2011 20:42 (utc) our position was 16°13.63'S 146°37.68'W

radio email processed by SailMail
for information see:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Polynesian Picnic 'Ants'

It was like a scene out of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video, the one where those creepy looking corpses are walking like zombies with their arms out in front of them, all in the same direction, as though they did not see nor care about anything that stood in their way.

No less than twenty cruisers from eight boats were gathered around a warm bonfire glow enjoying our land potluck dinner on one of the coral 'motus', or islets, of Tahanea. We were sharing dishes like Vietnamese salad rolls, lentil and rice burgers, curried tuna patties, hippie popcorn and chocolatey brownies. We were singing campfire songs with guitar, drum and harmonica accompaniment, and reveling in where we were and what we were doing.

"I think the ground is moving," someone said.

"Holy Moly. It IS moving!" someone else confirmed.

The dreamy atmosphere was shattered as we tried focusing on the white coral pieces that make up land here in the Tuamotus. Once our eyes adjusted, what we saw was nothing less than eerie. Hundreds of hermit crabs the size of baseballs were descending upon our picnic.

They came out of nowhere, and from all directions. They slowly crept as though in a trance towards us without a pause. Before we knew it, they had enveloped the picnic blankets. These crustaceans were literally climbing over each other in huge moving piles of shells - big shells. They were scrambling to get into the bowls and tupperware and casserole dishes, and ultimately into the food. It mattered not that we would pick them up and toss them aside. More kept coming. We tried setting a decoy of a bowl filled with peanut marinade off to the side of our festivities and in moments that bowl had disappeared under the pile of hermit crabs drowning themselves in sauce. No matter, before we could do anything about it, another group had climbed into the brownie dish, eaten through the tinfoil (did they swallow it?) and began munching on the chocolate heaven. We began to pick up and cradle our dishes, saving the precious food from needless destruction. Did these crabs not understand that coming upon food in the Tuamotus was difficult for us cruisers? Or perhaps that's the very reason why they bombarded us the way they did. Yes, in fact, they did resemble a bunch of cruisers crowding around free nutritious and plentiful food.

Apparently these critters are called coconut crabs, not because they each coconuts (although by the looks of it they'll eat anything) but rather because they live around coconut trees. There are plenty of coconut trees here, since they are the only vegetation that can survive on coral atolls - at least until they start dying off and the decomposed matter can support other low lying vegetation. These crabs make their homes inside seashells, carrying them around on their backs until they outgrow them, and find a new larger one. But I've never seen hermit crabs this big. Or maybe it was the sheer number of them. Or how tenacious they were. Or how indiscriminating.

But just like the 'Thriller' video, we got used to our guests, and carried on with great singing (although no dancing) - and an indelible picture of creepy swarming creatures in our memory banks.

En route Tahanea to Fakarava, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia
16 degrees 34.106 minutes South
145 degrees 22.394 minutes West
At 6/18/2011 23:03 (utc) our position was 16°34.09'S 145°22.39'W

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Waiting for Weather the Workshop Way

There is no question we are a talented bunch.  As we wait for a weather window to move on to the next atoll in the Tuamotus, we do not sit idle.  On the contrary, we generously offer and share our knowledge and talents with gusto as we scramble to fit it all in every day.
We’ve been at Makemo Atoll for over a week now, tied to the government dock.  It’s likely the only dock we’ll tie to during our adventure in the South Pacific until we reach Australia in November.  And in a place where the basics of life like food and gasoline and water are either so expensive or non-existent, it is surprising that making this dock our home is free. 

Unrelenting 25-30 knot winds blew in on the third day of our visit (we’ve seen as high as 40 knots), often with short bouts of rainfall, and are not expected to let up until Saturday.  You’d think we’d welcome wind while on a sailboat.  However, when navigating these lagoons it is essential that the water is relatively flat and the sun is shining so that you can pick out any stealth coral that will dangerously appear in front of your boat just below the water’s surface without warning.  Several boats are lost each year to these coral heads.  With winds as strong as we’ve seen, white caps and waves as high as 3 feet have appeared atop this otherwise glassy beckoning water.  As such, it is imprudent to move around even to another anchorage within the atoll.  A further danger associated with this weather is that the open ocean waves outside the atoll’s windward side are breaking right over the motus, or islets, that make up the atoll ring, pouring immeasurable quantities of additional water into the lagoon.  All this water has to escape at low tide, creating currents in the pass (our escape route) that we do not want to find ourselves in.

And so we wait. 

The color of the water is what beckons. It is the stuff of picture-postcards with its aqua green shades that dangle the secrets of its abundant underwater life in front of your eyes. But with this weather, we haven’t had much opportunity to swim.  We were, however, fortunate to have gotten in a drift snorkel in the pass during the first days of our stay – but the water was moving so quickly that it was over before we knew it and we didn’t see much in the way of sea life.   Michael and a few of the others also managed two drift scuba dives, in which they did spot a few interesting species, including sharks. When they returned to the boat, they helped non-certifieds try it out beside the dock.  The kids especially were ecstatic.     


But we are not bored. IMG_0373We have been so busy waiting out this weather that our heads are spinning. After school is done in the morning, the kids get busy designing sails to propel them forward on a scooter, or playing games, or beachcombing for shells or corals.  Brittania’s Amanda and I have been leading yoga every morning around 9 a.m. on the dock. Ceilydh’s Diane, a professional writer, has been giving writing workshops to a few of us wanting to get our stories, adventures or knowledge published in magazines or newspapers.  I’ve been leading some career workshops for those who are wanting to figure out what to do when we get back to land life. Pico’s ‘girl’ Lauren has been helping a few of us craft gorgeous beaded creations using coral and shells as well as French Polynesian coins, while Pico’s ‘boy’ Lauren has been teaching Harrison more advanced computer programming than he’s been doing.  The guys are getting boat projects done together, living the ‘It Takes a Village’ adage. The women are trading recipes after each of our potlucks.  We’ve been taking turns hosting nightly ‘sundowners’.

We are hoping to move on to Tahanea, another atoll, by Saturday.  And we still have so much to do before then.

Makemo Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Smooth Sailing To Tahanea Atoll in the Tuamotus

We arrived this morning to Tahanea Atoll after a quick, smooth sail from Makemo. We ended up arriving here around 3 am so, again, we hove to in order to wait until the sun came up and the tides were right for a safe entry. The entry into the pass went perfectly this time (as did our exit from the pass in Makemo) as we had about 1 knot of flood current. We actually sailed through rather than motoring. We are now anchored here and enjoying the beautiful clear water at this uninhabited island. Tomorrow morning we plan on doing another drift snorkel of the pass.

Michael - Anchored at Tahanea
At 6/13/2011 03:53 (utc) our position was 16°50.62'S 144°41.81'W

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hair Raising Entry into Makemo in the Tuamotus!

After heaving-to last night (which slows the boat down to just drifting at about 1 knot even in 20+ knots of wind), we entered the pass into Makemo Atoll this morning at 6:30 am. According to the tide tables this was slack current (ie. the slowest current and when the direction of the water flow changes from an incoming tide to an outgoing tide or vice versa). Depending on who you talk to, it was quite an exhilarating (Michael) or hair-raising (Barb) ride coming into the pass and made transit of the Golden Gate Bridge a cake walk. Because there have been a lot of waves breaking over the southern part of this atoll of 40 miles long by 10 miles across, and because there are only two passes for that water to exit on an outgoing tide, there actually was no slack tide nor a flood (water entering the pass). As such, we had 5-6 knots of current working against us in a narrow channel. In addition, the water was extremely turbulent starting about a quarter of a mile out of the pass and through it - like a scene of a bad storm out of a movie, with incoming waves crashing against the outgoing waves. On top of this, there were real whirlpools like I've never seen before and at times you could see them reaching several feet down. At times we were moving through the water (which was going in the opposite direction) at over 7 knots while we were actually only progressing over ground at 0.5 knots. At least we were still moving forward as we have rather powerful engines (150 horsepower combined in two engines) as compared to several of our other boating friends who have 30 hp engines. Our friends on Brittania that came in just a few minutes ahead of us were, at times, making zero knots over ground or even moving backwards while still moving through the water at over 6 knots with their engines at full throttle. We were completely exhausted once we got through it all, just from the stress.

Once we got through the pass, though, we were rewarded with anchoring in what is undoubtedly some of the bluest, crystal clear and calmest water we have ever seen. You can see the bottom and think the depth must only be 10-15 feet but realize you are easily in 30 to 40+ feet. The sky was perfectly blue with a few puffy clouds and amazing water - just like a South Pacific postcard. We ended up walking around the small town for a little while and then going for a snorkel. I hope to dive the pass here in the next day or so. It is supposed to be spectacular.

I guess this the kind of place that makes people dream of traveling to the South Pacific!

Michael (in Makemo, Tuamotus, French Polynesia)
At 6/2/2011 11:12 (utc) our position was 16°20.57'S 143°38.36'W

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Slowing Down Enroute to the Tuamotos

Well, as Barb shared with you in an earlier post, we left the Marquesas for the Tuamotus on Sunday afternoon. We estimated that the 500 mile trip, at an average speed of 6 knots, would get us into the Makemo Atoll on Thursday morning. It turns out that instead we were averaging 7 knots and as such, still as of this morning, were expecting to drop anchor in the early to mid afternoon today. As sailing would have it, the wind began to die! We discussed trying to push on but with tricky passes into the atolls, the fact that the sun sets here around 5 pm and that we have never been into this anchorage before, we've decided to slow the boat down, hang out offshore over night and then make an early morning entry (as per our original plan) into Makemo. We've dropped our main and are now just flying our spinnaker making only 4 knots 30 miles from landfall. Overall, its been an awesome and very comfortable sail.

We hope to get to about three atolls here in the Tuamotus before heading on to Tahiti in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. Atolls, according to Charles Darwin's' theory of atoll formation, are rings of coral which are the barrier reefs of volcanic islands that sank to the bottom of the Pacific millions of years ago. They can be very difficult to see from a distance as they are often only a few meters above sea level and it is often just the few tall coconut trees that you see when planning landfall. Most of these reefs have passes which boats can use to transit into the very clear blue lagoons. However, we have to transit these passes very cautiously as (a) there is lots of coral to stay clear of and (b) they have strong currents particularly when swell comes over the reefs and can only flow out only through the passes as the tied ebbs. Sometimes the currents in these passes can be as much as 9 - 10 knots which means that if your boat can do 6 knots and you have a current against you you will be going backwards at 3 - 4 knots. If its with you you can have limited control as you are traveling at 9 - 10 knots without even using engines! That is why we need to time our entry. We need slack current (that is when the direction of the current switches and is therefore at its slowest speed) and we need the sun high in the sky preferably from behind us so that we can see the coral heads as we find our way to an anchorage.

The in marine life in crystal clear blue lagoons (chance sighting of Brooke Shields), spectacular white sandy beaches and night skies void of light pollution. Also, most of these atolls can only be reached by smaller boats.

Michael (enroute to the Tuamotus)
At 6/1/2011 23:45 (utc) our position was 16°09.10'S 143°25.40'W