Black Pearls, Reef Sharks, & Ancient Ghosts
A cruise to Makemo atoll, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, delivers treasures, friendships, and discoveries.
The great thing about the French colonial empire is that it brought the gospel of puff pastry to the farthest reaches of the globe. Before the French made Polynesia a colony in 1880, you probably couldn’t find a decent croissant in the Tuamotus to save your life. Thank god, all that has changed.
On a Tuesday morning on Makemo, an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, my husband, Peter, and I woke up and decided that we could do with a little breakfast. Option One would’ve been to make a smoothie out of the withered black bananas hanging from our stern, all 800 of which had ripened at the same moment during our recent passage from the Marquesas. But we looked out over the anchorage’s glassy surface and chose for Option Two: We packed a dry bag and jumped over the side.
Swimming to shore was like paddling through an aquarium. Multicolored reef fish hovered around gnarled coral heads, and giant clams the size of my foot smacked their iridescent blue lips. The water was turquoise, transparent, and clean. When it got shallow, we switched to our sandals and waded ashore, the bleached-white coral fragments crunching under our Tevas. Wiggling into dry clothes, we embarked on Operation Breakfast Deliciousness. Just how much butter, eggs, and calories, you may ask, is it possible to consume before 9 o’clock in the morning?
The answer is lots. By the time we arrived at the Boulangerie Makemo, the croissants and pains au chocolat were already arranged in warm little rows, like newborn babes in a nursery. We started with four pains au chocolat, then moved on to croissants slathered generously in soft cheese and Nutella. Then we bought three baguettes to go, in the interests of future snack-making.
As any cruising princess will tell you, pain au chocolat isn’t the main reason for sailing to the Tuamotus. It may be rich, it may be fluffy, but in the final analysis, it’s just not possible to hang them around your neck and look gorgeous at a dinner party. For that, something else altogether is called for: black pearls.
In Europe and the United States, black pearls, which are cultivated in the Tuamotus, can cost thousands of dollars each. I once helped a girlfriend try on a particularly sumptuous black-pearl necklace in a jewelry boutique. The pearls were approximately the size of hamsters, and when she draped those silver orbs around her neck, she looked like a movie star. There was just one hitch: The necklace cost $48,000. That pricey bauble would’ve made Dick Cheney look like Elizabeth Taylor.
But in the Tuamotus, you can buy black pearls directly from the fishermen who cultivate them at a fraction of the export retail price. When Peter and I first arrived in Makemo village, we weren’t exactly sure how to go about striking a deal. The whole enterprise felt vaguely shady, like we were college kids in Tijuana looking to score weed. Luckily, I speak a little French. So when we bought some sodas at the local magasin, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. Like many Polynesians, Tomas was a big man, with broad shoulders, a thick head of black hair, and wide cheekbones. But I wasn’t shy. As every cruiser knows, if you want to make friends with a sailor, you just flirt with his boat.
“That’s yours?” I asked Tomas, gesturing toward the glossy-yellow cigarette boat parked on a trailer beside the store. “Wow!” I burbled. “She’s gorgeous.” He grinned, and then I swooped in: “So, ahh, do know where I can get some, you know—pearls?”