Black Pearls, Reef Sharks, & Ancient Ghosts
A cruise to Makemo atoll, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, delivers treasures, friendships, and discoveries.
“I might, “ he said, sizing me up. “Why don’t you go for a walk and come back in an hour or so.”
Peter and I returned to find Tomas waiting with his eldest son in the shade of a palm tree. Before them on a concrete table was a small, white package. Tomas carefully unwrapped the pearls.
The first thing you need to know about black pearls is that they aren’t black. They come in a marvelous assortment of colors, from pink and purple to green, silver, and gold. Some are almost as pale as white pearls, and one particularly gorgeous shade of green is what the French call aile de mouche—the wing of the fly. Tomas had about 50 pearls to show us, in diameters ranging from an eighth of an inch up to more than half an inch, the biggest ones resembling large, iridescent marbles. I wanted them all.
And this is the second thing you need to know about black pearls: They’ll turn you into a covetous troll. In order to go cruising in our 30s, Peter and I have done without a lot of material comforts. Our clothes are pretty ragged, and we don’t even have refrigeration on board. But one look at those beauties, and I knew my life would never be complete without a black-pearl necklace at my throat—preferably with matching earrings.
“I cultivated these myself,” Tomas told us with pride. “Each one takes nine to 18 months to grow inside the oyster, and you can only make three to four pearls with one oyster. After that, she’s a grandma. No more babies!”
We negotiated with Tomas—luckily I’m married to a hard-boiled New Yorker—and, for US$300 and a bottle of whiskey, we bought 20 pearls of various sizes, including a particularly wonderful one with stripes like a multicolored zebra. I could hardly restrain my glee. Mentally, I was going through my tattered wardrobe, picking out which rags would go best with my fabulous black-pearl necklace.
Surprisingly, pearls weren’t the only treasure uncovered that day. After two years of cruising, Peter and I have discovered that each time we take a moment to chat with local people and learn about their lives, we’re given an unexpected gift. Tomas asked his son to bring us three cold cans of Hinano, the local beer. We sat together in the dwindling sunshine, watching the shadows grow long.
“Have you been to the village of the ancients?” he asked. “Where our ancestors used to live?” Tomas scribbled a quick chart of Makemo atoll, then drew a straight line jutting directly out from the beach. “You can’t miss it,” he explained. “There’s a long reef that comes right out from land, blocking your way. You can tuck right in behind there and anchor for the night.” He picked up his beer and tipped it back. “Then, in the morning, explore the ruins.”
Evening was now coming on, and the light was growing dim. I had a pocketful of pearls, and in my hands I clutched a secret map that showed the way to an ancient village. Not bad for a Tuesday afternoon.
According to Tomas, the secret village was about halfway across the atoll, about 15 nautical miles away. The next morning, Peter and I woke up early to get ready for our adventure. My husband looked doubtfully at the scrap of orange paper with the chart of the Makemo atoll. “So we’re really going to use this to get there?” he asked as we made our plans. “Well, keep your eyes peeled, because it ain’t much to go on.”
No worries there. Everyone keeps their eyes peeled in the Tuamotus. Depth can change from 70 feet to inches in a heartbeat. Towering pinnacles of rock and coral jut straight up from the sea floor, creating a sort of navigational slalom course. This can be fun, provided you keep a good lookout and spot all the obstacles ahead of time.