**We’re now publishing full feature articles from WildJunket Magazine! Here is apiece from our contributing editor Candace Rardon, on her three-week black pearl farming in French Polynesia.
We head to a remote corner of the South Pacific for the most exotic working holiday around – three weeks on a black pearl farm.
T he knotted, grainy planks of the narrow wooden bridge swayed beneath my sandaled feet as I crossed the reef, turquoise hues glittering in the water beneath. Gentle waves danced in the sunlight that had just broken over the lagoon’s horizon, marking the start of another harvest day.
After coffee and crackers, I joined nine others on the weathered deck of the black pearl farm, hauling in barnacle-covered baskets of oysters from the lagoon. As we set up our workstations, I paused to marvel at my surroundings: nothing but the dark blue sea all around us and clear aqua skies overhead. Chances are, I would never have found my way to this far-flung South Pacific island on my own.
But with the help of WWOOF, short for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, I did and I was soaking up every bit of the Polynesian life I’d dreamt of.
On the flight over, I watched slivers of motu, the coral islets that form the ring of each atoll, wind through the water like a serpentine string of oases. I could only imagine what adventures they held.
Down on the Farm
When a month opened up in my travel plans, I took the empty slot in my schedule as an opportunity to get off the heavily beaten backpacker trail in Oceania. I wanted to invest my time in something more than a traditional beach holiday. To fully immerse myself and live in a local community, I turned to WWOOF for direction.
With national organizations in fifty countries, WWOOF is a network of host farms around the world who offer travelers the chance to help out with small tasks for a few hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation. As soon as I bought my membership to WWOOF Independents, I started browsing through each country’s hosts until a listing for a pearl farm on a remote atoll in French Polynesia had me saying: this is it.
French Polynesia is comprised of five archipelagos, 118 islands and atolls scattered like marbles across an area of the Pacific nearly the size of Western Europe. The largest island is Tahiti, with the verdant, jagged folds of its mountains visible even from the streets of the nation’s capital, Papeete, and the luxurious resorts of Moorea and Bora Bora only a short ferry ride away.
My pearl farm Kamoka was on Ahe, an island in the archipelago of the Tuamotus, northwest of Tahiti. On the flight over, I watched slivers of motu, the coral islets that form the ring of each atoll, wind through the water like a serpentine string of oases. I could only imagine what adventures they held.
The World is Your Oyster
In my first two weeks on the farm, I felt like I’d been plunged straight into the middle of a great movie– all exposition, no conflict, and barely a clue of how the story began or where it would end. I slept enclosed in a mosquito net on a foam mat in my own blue bungalow, the brilliance of its exterior strikingly similar to the emerald water steps away.
Every morning, I walked along the motu, tiptoeing around scores of hermit crabs, and crossed the bridge to the farm, built on a reef further out in the lagoon.
With the sun on my back and the wind in my face, I went out on the lagoon in an aluminum boat every day with three others who worked on the farm.
Laurent, the farm’s veteran manager, was born in France but has lived in French Polynesia for the last twenty years. Spotting gold hoop earrings, the modern-day hobo always kept the farm’s fridge stocked with cans of Hinano, Tahiti’s local beer. Hei’arii, who has worked on the farm for nine years, is an unswerving Parisian but equally proud of his Tahitian heritage, with several Polynesian designs as tattoos to prove it. And Aristide, a fun-loving Tahitian, was younger than the others but had hopes of becoming an expert pearl grafter. They wore nothing but long, colorfully printed board shorts, their bare backs stained teak-black from years in the sun.
We were all here for the oysters – and there they were, growing in long wire baskets, tied to a rope several meters underwater, like sheets on a clothesline. Laurent and Aristide donned snorkel masks and flippers every afternoon, diving down to the lines and bringing the baskets up to the surface, two by two.
I stayed in the boat with Hei’arii and helped him hoist the baskets up, stacking them neatly until the boat was full. Back at shore, the process was reversed, with Hei’arii and I lowering the baskets into the water for the other two to hang them on lines closer to the reef.
In the intervals between lifting baskets into the boat, Hei’arii taught me French and told me stories of his childhood. With a Tahitian mother, he often came to French Polynesia to visit family and spent much of his time befriending octopi in the water. “You bond with them,” he said as I stared at him in jealous disbelief. “They’re not like dogs; it only takes half an hour for an octopus to get attached to you.”
Every day we took a mid-morning break around the farm’s kitchen table, giving Laurent and Hei’arii a chance to smoke – something they did often, skillfully rolling their own cigarettes from small packets of loose tobacco. I kept to coffee, listening to them wax poetic in French.
With their conversations carrying on for hours, my mind was free to wander. Each new trip out on the lagoon had left me full of child-like questions. How does a pearl grow? When are they fully grown? How did the oysters get in the basket?
I would soon have my answers.
“Each new trip out on the lagoon had left me full of child-like questions. How does a pearl grow? When are they fully grown? I would soon have my answers.”
The full picture was revealed when the farm’s owner, Josh, arrived two weeks later, just before the harvest. Having been raised by a French father and an American mother, Josh shares Hei’arii’s mixed heritage. Josh and his father started the farm on Ahe in 1991, although Josh had since moved to the island of Tahiti with his wife and two children.
They would soon be moving to Portland, Oregon, though, before his daughter started high school. The prospect of leaving their life in French Polynesia behind was daunting. “I once went five months on the farm wearing nothing but shorts,” he told me one afternoon. “A shirt felt so foreign. Moving to Portland should be interesting.”
We spent my last week on Ahe working long hours to find out what the oysters had been up to over the last eighteen months. I could barely contain my excitement. The men prepped the oysters for harvest: cutting the strings that held each basket shut, scraping barnacles and algae off the shells, and prying the shells with plastic clothespins.
It was time for the pearls to make their dramatic appearance. Timi, the farm’s prized grafter with fourteen years of experience, had arrived two nights earlier, bearing a smile and boxes of Zumuva wine and ice cream like Santa Claus in summer.
Josh and Timi extracted the pearls from each oyster and grafted them into new nuclei – small, white beads made from tumbled pieces of broken mother-of-pearl shell. Bent over their workstations, they were like dentists, poking and prodding inside each oyster’s mouth with tools just long and sharp enough to make you nervous.
I was given the job of drilling a small hole near the hinge of each oyster, through which I threaded a clear plastic string and attached the oyster to a rope. Two ropes of ten oysters each were hung inside an empty basket and then lowered down into the water, starting the process all over again.
I loved being a part of the harvest, but what made the experience even more interesting – more than getting to see fully grown pearls emerge – was to see where they would eventually end up. I learned the answer after meeting a prospective pearl buyer, a 26-year old Canadian woman named Kristin.
Girl with A Pearl Earring
Kristen arrived on the farm wearing high-heeled sandals and a summer fedora, but it was soon clear she meant business. She graduated from the Gemological Institute of America with a degree in pearls – something I didn’t even know possible. In the last five years, she started her own company, opened a luxury retail store in downtown Calgary and traveled to Bali every year to handpick pearls for her designs. This was her first time working with Tahitian pearls.
At the end of each afternoon, Josh rinsed the day’s harvest and took a jar full of fresh, glistening pearls to Kristin. With her blond hair tied back, she worked on a long counter under windows that opened up to the reef below the farm – spreading the pearls out on a towel and sorting them by size and sheen into potential sets of strands and earrings.
Their lustrous spectrum was tremendous, from shades of green and gold to faded hint of pink and blue. These pearls are named after the black-lipped oysters, Pinctada margaritifera, but clearly the description “black pearls” does them no justice at all.
Watching Kristin from a discreet distance, I imagined the journey these pearls were embarking upon – from the mouth of the oyster, to the hand of the grafter, to the eye of the designer, who then would carry them 5,000 miles to a store in Canada.
On my way back to my bungalow that evening, I paused in the middle of that rickety bridge and stared up at a sky so full of stars, it seemed almost alive – the four points of the Southern Cross reminding me of just how far I had come. Every star pulsed with a vibrancy that rivaled the glow of all those pearls I knew were just beginning to form in the water far, far below.