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Ahe Atoll
- in the Tuamotus, French Polynesia -

text by Chrissi

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Ahe Atoll
The Tuomotus

Behind schedule and anxious to get moving, we sailed out of the Marquesas and into nasty weather, but thankfully it didn’t last long. After a long night of strong wind and rain, we were rewarded with sunny skies and a steady southeast breeze that gently conveyed us to our next destination, Ahe Atoll in the Tuomotus Archipelago.

The Tuomotus are a group of coral atolls known well for their dangerous passes and approaches, low lying sandy islands covered in coconut palms, and crystal blue lagoons. The islanders make their living from fishing and copra production, but the big money is in black pearl cultivation. The reefs and lagoons are abundant in marine life, and paddling from island to island over colorful reefs and incredibly clear water is a real treat.

Only a few feet above sea level, these islands are on the razor edge of extinction. What I mean by that is that a small shift in sea levels due to global warming or abnormal weather patterns would make these islands uninhabitable. Some of the southern Tuomotus were used as nuclear bomb testing grounds by the French government. Imagine poisoning and destroying such a beautiful and delicate paradise! The testing sites were finally dismantled in 1996.

We slipped easily through the Ahe pass at slack water, and sailed across the lagoon to the village where there is a ships wharf. This motu, or island, is the social center of the atoll. We had to anchor bow and stern to keep from swinging into the coral heads in the well protected inner lagoon. Once Naga was safely tucked away, we paddled ashore in the kayak. We didn’t get 100 feet from the pier when we met some islanders sitting in a yard playing guitar and ukeleles, who invited us to join them in their Bastille Day celebrations. All that singing and ukulele playing must have been very thirsty work, because case after case of heineken rapidly disappeared until the party deteriorated into incomprehensible babble.

The tuomotus are famous for their black pearls, and some of these fantastic treasures found their way into my “precious stuff” pouch. I was given several as gifts, and some I traded for. With a little creativity and some sterling silver hooks and clasps, I turned some of these pearls into a nice collection of black pearl jewelry. I should sell them to turn a nice profit, but I am really tempted to keep them all for myself.

I found the process of pearl cultivation to be interesting, so I will describe what I know about it. This process is called grafting. First, several of the black lipped oysters with the most colorful and perfect mother of pearl shells are found and sacrificed, and tiny pieces of their mantle, the outer lip of flesh, are cut up and inserted into the host oyster. This tiny piece of flesh is what will give the pearl its unique coloring. Inserted into the “womb”of the host is a nucleus, which is a small perfect sphere, which comes from a large fresh water mollusk found in the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. The insertion process is a delicate one, the oyster must be carefully opened about 3/4 of an inch, and with a small wedge it is held open. Then, with long tweezers and a steady hand, the graft is made. Next, the oysters get a small hole drilled into their shell, and are strung like Christmas lights onto a long piece of rope. The oysters are then returned to the sea and left alone for several months, dangling from anchored mooring balls or a dock. To extract the pearls, the oyster is once more opened carefully, and if the oyster has not rejected the nucleus, a black pearl will be removed and another nucleus put in its place. Either the oyster will reject the nucleus, or it will accept it and build up a layer of nacre on it. The smoothness, shape, depth and coloring of the nacre layer will determine the pearl’s value. The oysters that reject the nucleus are either eaten, sacrificed for their mantle, or a different type of insertion is made; a small piece of the oysters shell will be inserted into the womb, or a plastic hemisphere will be attached to the inside of the shell. The former will produce an odd-shaped and lumpy pearl, and the latter will create a colorful lump on the mother of pearl shell, which can then be cut out and turned into a less expensive piece of jewelry.

A very small percentage of these cultivated pearls turn out to be AAA+ quality, which makes them extremely valuable. While visiting jewelry stores in Papeete, I saw some of these AAA+ pearls. The colors of the rainbow are captured in a single pearl, and you can see your reflection like you were looking into a mirror. It seems as if an inner fire burns in these pearls. A string of these perfect pearls long enough for a collar was priced at 600,000,000 francs, well over $600,000 US dollars.

Pearls aren’t the only treasure in this atoll. The generosity and kindness of the islanders is tremendous. Daniel and Pierette along with their nine children made our stay really enjoyable, they befriended us, opened their home to us, fed us, and gave us gifts. Rosaline and Tierri made sure that Jack stayed well-pickled, and entertained us with songs and stories.

One of my most enjoyable days in Ahe was the day I took my hammock, a small lunch and a paperback, and paddled several miles until coming to a coconut island that called out to me. There I strung my hammock in the shade of the palms, and spent the entire day doing nothing. Napping. Reading. Looking over my toes at the incredible turquoise water. Napping some more. A more serene day was unimaginable. The wind was accommodating at the end of the day and I was able to sail the kayak along the reef, dangling my feet in the warm lagoon water, gazing down at the colorful coral, and easily covering the several miles I had paddled over previously that morning.

The easiest time to enter and leave the atoll is between tides, at slack water. We were delayed from leaving during slack water because some young boys had come to our boat for a visit and to trade some pearls. When we got out to the atoll pass, the tide had already turned and a strong tidal rip churned up the entrance. The waves were falling over each other and the current was ripping against us. Undeterred, we sailed into the maelstrom with reefed main and staysail, and handily plowed through the confused seas and overfalls, making headway slowly but sufficiently. Once out into the open ocean again, I put out the trolling line and soon proceeded to lose my lure to some big sea monster. On the second try, I caught a tuna.

Next stop Tahiti, where we will collect our mail and our new wind generator, and stock up on goodies from the big french supermarket in Papeete.


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