Well, Happy Labor Day. Really cannot believe we have been in French Polynesia almost 5 months. We left BoraBora (finally) on Friday 9/2 - early 0615 - that was a killer. We motor sailed to the Tahaa (Ta ha a) pass without any near misses with either the HawaikiNui or the Taporo 6 freighters. As we approached the pass we had a most excellent whale watching experience. Two or three humpbacks gave us quite a show. They started by waving their pectoral fins, then some breaching and tail slapping. We thought the show was over, but not so - one of them came from our starboard side and crossed in front of the boat - about 20 feet away. Too close for my comfort, but gave us a really good look at him/her. They gave us a few more breaches or spy hops, then the show was over. (I wasn't able to catch any of it on film, so you'll have to take my work for it for now.) Just in time for us to head into the pass. We met up with Moondance in Apu bay. We snagged a mooring ball next to them and settled in.
We got the dinghy back in the water, had some lunch then went with Moondance to the small magazin (store) across the bay. We traded in our case of 500ml Hinanos for some fresh, picked up a couple of cold ones and some rice and headed back to our respective boats to prepare for dinner at Moondance. Carla made yummy chilli with cornbread. I made quesadillas and salsa for appetizers and apple cobbler for dessert. After dinner we played dice - the Morrison's cleaned up. Sadly by 9pm we were fading fast after our 0600 wake up call. We agreed to meet at 1030 the next morning to go to the pearl farm.
Saturday - we met up and walked to the Pearl Farm - just up the road from the dock. See the end of this post for Josh's report on the farming of pearls in French Polynesia. After the tour we were able to look at loose and set pearls. Tahaa and Raiatea produce a coppery colored pearl found only at these islands. Pearls come in different qualites. "A" quality is round with less 10% imperfections, "B" has 30% or less, and "C" more than 30%. Carla picked up a couple of 8mm copper colored pearls - very pretty. I wasn't able to find anything both Dennis and I agreed on, so saved our money for another day. After the pearl farm we decided to walk to the magazin and look for the phone booth on the way. A good ways in, Dennis and I went back for the dinghy, with a stop to buy fruit on the way, we scored some bananas, pamplamousse, limes and papaya, with ripe bananas and 2 green coconuts thrown in for gratis. We dodged another rain storm and met Doug and Carla at the magazin. We hung out in front of the magazin drinking our beers, watching the ground crabs and snacking for about an hour, then headed back to the boats. We agreed to leave the next morning for Haamene bay on the east coast of Tahaa.
Sunday - we were off the mooring ball around 1000 - took Josh a while to undo the macrame the bouy for the mooring ball had made with our line to the main mooring - note to self tie the bouy line up out of the water. Was nice to stay on the mooring, didn't cost anything. Apu bay is quite deep, so anchoring would have been difficult. We made it to Haamene bay by noonish, and were able to pick up another mooring in front of the Hibiscus Hotel (thanks Fiona). After lunch we took the dinghy in to the hotel dock to see if we owed money for the mooring. We had some pleasant surprises. First, no cost for the mooring, then happy hour from 5-7 and finally the Hibiscus hotel itself. The owner, Leo Morou (a Belgian) is the founder of a turtle rescue foundation begun in 1993. Since it was 2 hours until happy hour we decided to go for a walk. We didn't make it to the head of the bay, but we gave it a good try. We got back to the hotel restaurant about 4:20. Dennis took the dinghy to the boat to get Josh and dice, while Doug, Carla and I looked through the log book of guests and information on the turtle rescue and waited for happy hour to start.
Leo and his wife buy turtles from local fisherman that have caught them in their nets. These turtles (green turtles mostly) would otherwise be killed and eaten, or sold on the black market. The turtles are kept in a pen by the restaurant where hotel guests or other tourists can see them and for a fee adopt a turtle and set it free. The turtles are tagged for future study before they are released. I found it interesting to learn that turtles come back to their birth place to breed and lay eggs. The females do not become fertile until they are at least 20 years old, and will lay 2 clutches of eggs during a fertile year. But, they are not fertlie every year, more like once every 3-5 years. When the eggs hatch the hatchlings run the gauntlet from the nest to the water. Even after they reach the water they are easy prey. The lucky ones find a debris current and live in it for a long time. Not much is known about the early life of turtles, because they are not seen again until they are 14-18 inches long. I think to date they have saved in the neighborhood of 4000 turtles.
Monday - As we were leaving the restaurant yesterday, the server asked if we wanted to visit a vanilla plantation - which we did, so we set it up for 0900 Monday.
The vanilla plantation tour was pretty cool. Brian (from Denmark) and his wife (from Tahaa) grow vanilla organically on her family's property. Another educational day for us. Vanilla is of the orchid family of which there are 33,000 different varieties. The vanilla plant does not produce a seed pod unless it is manually pollinated. The process was discovered by an Englishman watching a butterfly in Madagascar. Most of the vanilla we see in stores etc is not from French Polynesia. According to Brian, Tahitian vanilla is different and in France it is called black gold. Regardless, it is a very time consuming process to grow vanilla, and even more so to grow it organically. The vine is planted at the base of a tree and covered with coconut husks, when the vine is 18 months old, they start cutting the ends, to force more sprouting, this is done every 3 months until the plant blooms. At some point the tree which has been shading the plant is cut back so the vine gets about 60% sunlight. When the plant blooms - usually about 15 flowers per cluster- 2/3rds of the flowers are pollinated (by hand), then 9 months later the pods are ready for harvest. the pod clusters are harvested in total and taken to drying sheds. As the pods dry and turn brown, they drop of the stem naturally, this causes the least amount of harm to the pod. The drying process is also long and tedious. The pods are separated by length and quality (blemish free) then set out in the sun for 24 hours. They are then set in baskets by size, dried some more and finally they are massaged every day for 15 days, this releases the vanilla smelling molecule. All in all it is about 3 years from initial planting to final product. Here in Tahaa a kilo of vanilla beans is 22,000 FPFr, or 244 USD. Brian and his wife export primarily to Denmark for distribution to the rest of Europe. I am looking forward to putting a bean into a bag of good coffee to make my own vanilla flavored coffee.
While I was on an island called Tahaa we went to a pearl farm. Pearls were the first gems man ever discovered. Natural pearls happen when an oyster gets a piece of sand inside of it and it's mantle starts layering it with a material called Nacre which its shell is made out of. If you have ever seen the inside of an oyster shell or seen one that has been polished they are very shiny and smooth so that's what gets layered around the sand. Natural pearls are always small and not very good quality. In the beginning of pearl farming people harvested them and found them naturally but only 1 in 2000 oysters had pearls naturally. Since oysters with pearls became very scarce a Japanese man named Mokimoto developed a way to make oysters have pearls. That development gave birth to pearl farms all over the Pacific
On the farm we went to there were two separate places, one was where they had the oysters and one was where they had the processing center. The actual farm where they had the oysters was far away out on the reef surrounding the island. The oysters were hung on little ropes that were hung from one larger rope. There were ten oysters to each little rope and many little ropes to every big rope. All the ropes were hung 10 to 15 meters under the water and off the ground and there were a lot of the larger ropes so they had around 100,000 oysters on that farm.
When the oyster is old enough they open it just enough to cut into its egg sack and place a tiny round piece of clam shell and a piece of mantle which creates the nacre. For every batch of new oysters they have to sacrifice one with a good colored shell so the mantle makes a good color on the pearl. They cut up the mantle of the sacrificed animal so they can put a little bit of the mantle in with the shell for the other oysters. It's international law that the clam shell has to be from the Mississippi river because it's strong enough so that any jeweler knows that if they drill the pearl it will not break apart. When the oyster notices the foreign object it starts to layer it with nacre and after a while you get your pearl. If you cut open a pearl you can see the various layers of pearl and even the round shell in the middle. After they put the shell in the egg sack they wait a year and half then look at it. If it is nice, round, and big enough they can sell it. When they take out the pearl and they like it they put another round piece of clam shell in and they don't have to put the mantle in because the previous one is still there. When they put the clam shell in, it has to be the same size because that's the size the egg sack is so the piece can make a bigger pearl. Sometimes the pearl comes out in weird shapes such as ovals, flat, and just random, they call those barroque pearls and are considered bad. They are much cheaper because they aren't round and shiny.
Some problems that they have are predators eating the oyster but if they lose a few here and there it's not that bad. The only animals that can get at them are manta rays, turtles, parrotfish, and triggerfish. Every two weeks they take the oyster out and scrape anything growing on it off. Oysters eat plankton and anything growing on it gives competition so the pearl doesn't grow as much. If an oyster gives a barroque pearl or a bad quality pearl they use it to sacrifice the mantle then they eat it and send its shell to make buttons so nothing is wasted. It was cool to learn about how they make pearls and know they do it way different than I had thought they did.