Blue Lagoon, Black Pearls

<i> Barry Van Wagner is a photographer and writer in Pinole, Calif</i>

With a quick twist on a short wooden wedge, Tahitian pearl farmer Henri Tauraa pried open the shells of a hapless oyster, revealing a lustrous black pearl nestled on the half shell. “La couleur, c’est belle,” he whispered, scrutinizing the marble-size pearl under the brilliant South Pacific sun. Henri grinned and dropped the dusky jewel into my hand. Scooping up three other pearls he’d collected just minutes before, I cradled this quartet of natural Polynesian gems in my palm and admired their raw elegance.

A relative newcomer to the world jewelry market, French Polynesia first cultivated black pearls in the 1960s. Today it exports more than 200,000 of these iridescent gems a year. Their name comes from the distinctive black-lipped oyster that produces them, not from the pearl itself; the term “black pearls” is actually a misnomer because they come in green, magenta, blue, silver-black, green-black and even white. Individual pearls can cost $150 to several thousand dollars. And leading French Polynesia’s cultivation of the gems is the coral atoll of Manihi, where more than 60 pearl farms operate within its tropical lagoon.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 28, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 28, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
French Polynesia--Due to an editing error in a story about Manihi atoll (“Blue Lagoon, Black Pearls,” March 21), the Guidebook misidentified two airlines serving Tahiti. Air Tahiti Nui is the long-distance carrier, flying from L.A. to Papeete. Air Tahiti is the local airline that flies to Manihi. In addition, Air France offers flights from LAX to Tahiti.

Manihi is about 300 miles northeast of Tahiti in the Tuamotu Islands, which are part of French Polynesia. Although there are daily Air Tahiti Nui flights to Manihi, the place is almost unknown outside French Polynesia. But as an avid collector of Tahitian black pearls, I had long wanted to visit the atoll to learn more about how they are produced. So when I visited French Polynesia a year and a half ago, I made sure to set aside some time in Manihi.


The 50-minute flight from Papeete, Tahiti, to Manihi passed over several Tuamotu atolls, each appearing as an aqua-colored ring against the deep blue Pacific Ocean. I was the lone American on the flight--about half the passengers were French and Italian tourists, and the rest were locals. As we neared Manihi atoll I saw its unusual shape--an oblong necklace of land interspersed with islets (called motus) that collectively encircle an 18-mile-long by 5-mile-wide lagoon. The motus were thick with coconut palms and pandanus trees and were surrounded by turquoise waters. And within the lagoon, shacks stood on coral heads to serve as makeshift work areas for pearl farms. Manihi’s economy once relied on fishing and coconut harvesting, but now black pearls have become the lifeblood of the atoll.

Most of the 500 local inhabitants live in the village of Turipaoa, on a separate motu about 10 minutes by boat from the crushed-coral airstrip and single resort on the main island. Most visitors stay at the luxury Manihi Pearl Beach Resort--as I did later in my stay. But to save some money and because I was interested in black pearls, I’d arranged, with the help of some friends, to spend a couple of days at a nearby pearl farm.

Waiting for me at the airport was Etienne Tuaiva, a diver at one of the largest pearl producers in Manihi, La Compagnie Perliere des Tuamotu (CPDT). On his boat we dodged coral heads in Manihi’s lagoon and stopped at a village for supplies and to pick up Henri, CPDT’s pearl farm manager. In 15 minutes we arrived at the pearl farm on motu Takovea.

As I climbed onto a wooden jetty, I saw hanging from scaffolding in the shallow lagoon hundreds of small oysters ready for pearl cultivation. Nearby a submerged wire mesh cage held saucer-size oysters containing, Henri hoped, cultured Tahitian black pearls. A kaleidoscope of fish swam leisurely below, awaiting a meal of discarded oysters from the farm.

Henri, Etienne and I communicated with bits of French, Spanish and hand gestures. They were both native Tahitians who spent half of each month working at the pearl farm. That night Henri offered me a hut to sleep in, with a simple bed frame and a piece of foam for a mattress. For the next two days I learned about pearl farming by watching Henry and Etienne do their jobs.

Black pearl farms are set up in protected lagoons where the atoll’s reefs slow the strong ocean waves, while still allowing currents to carry enough nutrients to feed the oysters. It takes about two to three years for a Pinctada margaritifera oyster to grow large enough for the grafting process to begin. Then the fleshy mantle of a healthy oyster is removed and cut into dozens of small squares. Each of these squares is inserted into a different oyster along with a mussel shell bead, and after the oysters are returned to the lagoon they begin to grow protective layers over these foreign bodies, which can become a pearl.


Eighteen to 24 months later, the oysters are brought back to the pearl farm and wedged open. Sometimes no pearl has been formed or there is a small, irregular shape that isn’t of gem quality. But when a cultured pearl is discovered, the grafter makes an incision to retrieve it. The farmer may then reuse this healthy oyster and repeat the grafting process, this time in the hope of creating an even larger pearl. Out of 100 cultivated oysters, only about 10 to 20 produce a gem suitable for jewelry.

On my third night I moved from simplicity to luxury by taking a room at the Manihi Pearl Beach Resort, with its rooms facing the beautiful lagoon. Rates start at about $240 a day (although over-water bunglows go for almost double that), but when I faxed a query from Tahiti they offered me a 50% discount, probably because the resort was only 40% occupied. The resort offered a fine restaurant, bar, boutique, swimming pool and a specialty shop featuring Tahitian black pearls.

My bungalow was on stilts a few feet above the sand, which kept out any wandering crabs. The deck opened eastward, displaying dramatic South Pacific sunrises and spectacular moonrises above the placid lagoon. Hammocks swayed between coconut palms, offering the perfect relaxation coupled with exquisite island views. My room was modern Polynesian, built with local thatch and wood, but it included a refrigerated minibar and two-speed hair dryer.

Basic room rates at the resort don’t include meals. I was offered a package with full meals for about $80 a day, which I declined, even though nightly dinner specials featured grilled mahi-mahi or parrotfish caught fresh from the seas surrounding Manihi. Instead, to save money I relied on breakfast ($15) to see me through most of the day. A breakfast buffet was served in the thatch-roofed dining room offering mangoes, pineapples, bananas, papayas and watermelons. There was also a variety of freshly baked breads, omelets and other egg dishes, coffee and tea, and orange, guava and papaya juices to satisfy my early morning thirst. Later in the day I bought sandwiches at the resort’s bar--along with a few cold Hinano beers.

Most guests spent their days sunbathing or diving. Although the lagoon was just 20 feet from my door, the cleverly designed swimming pool intrigued me. Nestled between the dining room and over-water bungalows, it appeared as an extension of Manihi’s lagoon. The resort also offered diving trips, lagoon tours, sunset cruises and excursions to a deserted motu--all for an extra fee. Or I could have returned to motu Takovea on one of the resort’s half-day excursions and listened to Henri’s “pearl school” demonstrations.

But with only about 30 people at the resort, it was easy to stay and find some quiet. I enjoyed pleasant swims in front of the resort, and later I walked out to a reef and then swam to even deeper waters in the lagoon. Over the next two days I wandered the island and found it to be almost of virgin land, with palm trees and shallow lagoons where I stopped to pick shells and to read.

During my stay I discovered that it was difficult to buy black pearls at a pearl farm--it’s kind of like trying to buy a gallon of milk directly from a dairy farm. Most farms transport newly harvested pearls off island to grading centers. And while the Manihi resort did offer some stunning finished black pearls for sale, I didn’t buy any, anticipating the costs of my upcoming weeks of travel. But the memories I took from Manihi were priceless--and I knew I could always go back.


GUIDEBOOK: South Seas Gems

Getting there: Nonstop flights from LAX to Papeete, Tahiti (about 8 1/2 hours long), are on Air New Zealand, AOM French and Air Tahiti. Round-trip fares start at $1,008. From Papeete, Air Tahiti Nui offers flights to Manihi; round trip is $340.

Where to stay: Most visitors stay at Manihi Pearl Beach Resort, telephone 011-689-96-4273, fax 011-689-96-4272. There are 41 units. Brochure rates for beach bungalows, about $240 a night; over-water bungalows, $460. There is an 8% tax, and meals are not included; daily meals are $84 extra, alcohol not included. Some private lodgings are available on Manihi, but contacting the owners via mail, phone or fax is unreliable.

For more information: Tahiti Tourist Board, 300 Continental Blvd., El Segundo, CA 90245; tel. (310) 414-8484, fax (310) 414-8490, Internet