Buoys from pearl farms dot the surface of the lagoon in Gambier. They create a slalom course for sailing yachts exploring the islands within the lagoon.
Mangareva – where we’ve been anchored doing boat work after our passage across the Pacific – is the largest in the archipelago, and is the local pearl farming hub.
After the storm passed and Deena arrived, we hiked across from the little town of Rikitea, where we are anchored, to the other side of the island. We walked along a scenic bay called “Baie de Gatavake” to meet Gabriel, whose father owns a guesthouse and pearl farm. At the end of a long wooden pier an aluminum panga greeted us.
Thanks to its privileged lagoon setting, the Gambier islands are home to one of the largest black pearl operations in the South Pacific. Black pearls are valuable because they are limited in range; they are primarily found in French Polynesia, Cook Islands, and Fiji.
The influx of cash from this industry has turned Gambier into a workhorse community. Pearl farming is a 7 day per week operation. Nearly everyone, as a local lady explained to us with a wry smile, “is a slave to the pearl”.
A young guy with wetsuit around his waist greeted us. He drove the 115 HP aluminum panga at full speed through a maze of coral reef channels. In the glassy turquoise water, we went by several little houses on stilts: these are the pearl farms. Gabriel’s farm consisted of a large shack on a wooden dock, about one half mile from the island.
To our surprise, when we entered the shack there was a ton of people inside! About twenty workers were crammed into the verandah, the floating dock, and the inner room. They each do a different job. There were guys with baseball caps drilling tiny holes in the baby oysters to attach on strings. There were ladies tying oysters to the ropes that hung in the water column. The workers buzzed around like an organized beehive, and we could scarcely move around without being in someone’s way.