Pearls of the Dangerous Archipelago
15 May 2008
Ocean > French Polynesia > Tuamotu > Manihi
the lone seaman all the night
Sails astonished among stars."
The green glow from the radar casts sinister shadows on
our faces. The atoll comes into view on the screen; a thin
ring flashing on the console is our only warning of the
danger that lies ahead. Ten miles away in the pitch black,
razor sharp reefs lurk just under the surface while waves
crash and pound on the coral just as they have for the past
is the Tuamotu, historically known as the Dangerous Archipelago,
once home to an ancient 800 km-long range of rumbling volcanoes.
When the volcanoes emerged, coral began forming in the surrounding
shallows. Over time, the volcanoes began to erode back into
the sea, but the coral continued to grow, leaving a footprint
of the long-lost volcanic island's shore. Eventually, fluctuating
ocean levels, sand deposits and organic debris have built
up above sea level, leaving ringed islands, some 20 km in
diameter but only about 6 feet high - hard enough to spot
during the day, and virtually impossible at night.
wrecks of the past lie here, drawn onto the reefs by the
romance of mystery and adventure. Today, the Tuamotu are
famous for two things; French nuclear testing and Black
Tahitian Pearls. Rare and exquisite, the pearls are plucked
from the heart of the Pacific Ocean and keenly traded for
Ecuadorian rum. The nuclear testing, meanwhile, has not
been as big a hit.
Black Tahitian Pearls
Black Tahitian Pearls are highly valued gems because of
their rarity; the culturing process for them dictates a
smaller volume output and can never be mass produced. The
particular oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, often rejects
the irritant which causes the pearl and they are quite sensitive
to changing climatic and ocean conditions.
value of the pearls in jewelry is determined by a combination
of the luster, color, size, lack of surface flaw and symmetry.
Generally, larger and rounder pearls are the most highly
The exception is in their presentation. For example, finding
a collection of irregularly-shaped-but-nearly-identical
pearls can be quite a challenge, and making them into an
interesting, chique necklace may fetch a very high price
in the boutiques of Paris.
Last of the Trickle or First of the Flood?
That brings us back to a close encounter with one of the
atolls, Manihi, which is the original home of the Black
Tahitian Pearls and an epicentre of high seas adventure.
My latest ride is with a couple of fellow "Buscaderos
de Gusto" - an American, along with his Swedish friend
who can take me as far as Tahiti. We have decided to stop
here for a day or two to trade with the locals and soak
up the Polynesian atoll experience.
It seems that with every passing yacht, the world-famous
Polynesian hospitality here disappears just a little more,
although their business sense is still strong. As I visit
more of French Polynesia, I see the locals' eyes glazing
over with disinterest to visiting yachts.
was a place where only 40 years ago, a small trickle of
sailors passing through encountered canoes and flowers and
waving girls wearing grass skirts when they arrived, but
as time went on and sails began to appear almost daily,
that playfulness waned.
So as I sail under that astonishing star-filled sky, the
question that I keep repeating to myself is, are we the
last of that original trickle? Are we still living on the
edge, in a world where solitude and playful innocence are
out there, somewhere just over the horizon?
are we just riding on the first wave of the flood, desperately
trying to stay ahead so we can experience something before
it's hopelessly drowned?
(pause for dramatic effect)
This story is to be continued...