"Arctracer" Letters

Galapagos to Mangareva, French Polynesia, June 1998

Both of the places that sailboats are allowed to anchor in the Galapagos are TERRIBLE! When we were on the tour boat "San Antonio" for a week touring several of the islands in the Galapagos, we saw other sailboats anchored off the southernmost island of Floreana. On May 15th, after about a month in the Galapagos, we checked out and sailed to Floreana to stay 4 days to make repairs because of damages incurred at the anchorage in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos.

Highlights in the Galapagos for us were swimming with sea lions, small penguins, manta rays, and white-tipped sharks; seeing some waved albatross, lots of blue-footed boobies, male frigate birds with their big red balloons (pouches) during the mating season, several species of marine and land iguanas, and the giant tortoises; and walking on 120 year old lava formations.

(view photos of Galapagos Islands)

(view photos of Galapagos Birds)

(view photos of Galapagos Iguanas and Lizards)

(view photos of Galapagos Penguins & Sea Lions)

We left Floreana in the Galapagos on May 19th and after 24 days at sea, arrived in Mangareva on June 11th. We had a good trip and enjoyed being at sea again. We needed to shorten sails several times because of strong winds. Often the seas were confused because of the Humboldt current being against the wind. Nights at sea were quite cool so I wore my long underwear, wool socks, and heavy wool sweater under my heavy-duty foul weather gear.

We are almost as far south as the Tropic of Capricorn (23deg 27' south latitude) so the weather is similar (but colder, perhaps because of no large landmasses between us and the Antarctic) to the Exumas in the Bahamas in December (Tropic of Cancer 23deg 27' N). Presently we are at 134deg 50' west longitude, while California is about 120deg W and Alaska is about 150deg W. We are in time zone 9 now, while the northeast U.S. is in time zone 4. We set our clock back 3 times (every 15deg longitude) over the 3000 miles between the Galapagos and the French Gambier Islands. We see the southern cross in the sky on clear nights now and no longer see Polaris.

We are really glad that we sailed here instead of sailing to the Marquesas. Apparently some of the anchorages in the Marquesas have over 100 sailboats in them. There are a lot of cruisers out here! In the anchorage here there is a German boat, a South African boat, an Irish boat, and 2 French boats. We met the people on the German and South African boats in Panama. It was amazing to us that we knew the people on 2 out of 5 of the other boats here in the lagoon. Gerdhardt on the German boat was one of our four line handlers required to go through the Panama Canal and the South African boat was rafted to us going through the locks during our two day transit of the canal. We stayed overnight in the canal and swam with the crocodiles.

The population here in Rikitea is about 500. They have a post office that is open until about noon each day, four small and very EXPENSIVE stores (we bought a dozen eggs for $6) and a church that holds 2000 people. The church was built under the supervision of a French priest in the mid 1800's. There are no bars, no restaurants, and no tourism on this 8-km x 1.5-km island. We love it here! There is a small airstrip on one of the smaller islands here in the lagoon. We have heard that flights arrive from Tahiti, 1700 km northwest, 2 0r 3 times a month (so who knows when this letter will get to you). A cargo ship also arrives about once a month. It arrived 3 days ago so the baker in town has flour again. Today we bought four baguettes so that I wouldn't have to make bread today or tomorrow. I've used a lot of flour since we left Panama.

While here we plan to find out about the extensive oyster farming where they culture black pearls. We also want to walk on the 23 km of narrow cement and/or dirt roads around the volcanic hills of the island. There is excellent snorkeling, but it has been too cold to stay in the water for very long. Perhaps we should have come during their summer or brought some wet suits.

They don't seem to have any fresh vegetables here, but they give away bananas and HUGE grapefruit. They give these away, as it is too expensive to ship them to Tahiti. The grapefruit are so large that I can't eat a whole one at one time.

Since leaving Panama we've had difficulty getting fresh water. We are very low and need rain. Apparently there is a shortage of water throughout the Tuamotus, as they only get water by collecting rain. We've been drinking a lot of gingerale that we had on board and we are doing all of our dishes in seawater. I'm thinking that perhaps it is time to consider buying a water maker. We've never needed one before and since they are difficult to maintain we previously decided to buy water and not deal with watermakers.

As long as the French are no longer doing their nuclear testing here in the Tuamotus, boats are allowed to sail through them. We will be going into some of the lagoons of some of the atolls on our way to Tahiti (about 1000 miles NW). We have no firm plans, but want to be out of this area (away from tropical cyclones) by the end of November. We will probably be in New Zealand for a few months during the cyclone season. We hope to do a lot of inland touring there.

Mangareva June 23, 1998 One day we walked near the steep cliffs of Mt. Duff, the highest hell here (1500'). We walked to the end of a road, then to the end of a path and back to the village in about four hours. We found wild coffee beans, which we've dried, and plan to roast, grind, and brew them as an experiment.

We also went on a 7-hour hike (about 10 miles) around the island. Jerry no longer has comfortable shoes so he got terrible blisters. (Perhaps we need to wear shoes more often.) We saw lots of pigs and piglets (one sty was built over the water with holes in the floor - less muddy that way? They were fed coconuts. We also saw elaborate flower gardens, mango trees (out of season for fruit), oranges on trees, grapefruit on trees, breadfruit, limes, and papayas on their trees and bananas. Besides seeing hens and roosters in the few yards we passed, we also saw them in the wild (far from any houses). It was interesting to see rats in trees, black-colored lizards, and tropicbirds. We saw no land birds except pigeons.

We met some local Polynesians and had local Mangarevan food. We had wild hens lured to a wire trap by cooked rice in a coconut shell, topshells collected from the reefs while snorkeling, pig parts from the insides of three pigs we saw hanging in the yard, manioc (a root which arrowroot flour is made from), and deep purple- colored potatoes. I took my homemade French bread to one of the dinners and Suzanne had me go to her house another day to show her how to make it. She needed a lot for her big family, so I made 15 loaves instead of the 3 loaves I normally make. It was an interesting afternoon since she spoke no English and I spoke no French or Mangarevan. Jerry's French has come in handy here, as they don't speak English.

It has now rained. We collected enough water to do laundry, take showers, and put water in our tanks. A family gave us about 50 gallons of water collected from their roof catchment system. It is great to have plenty of drinking and cooking water again!

I rode bikes with a girl from a local family. She took me to a school where students from 16-18 years old learn to create things from the oyster shells - decorations, elaborate mother of pearl necklaces and earrings, pearl necklaces and earrings. She also showed me where to sometimes get vegetables. I bought cabbages, green bell peppers, cucumbers, green beans, and onions. What a treat!

We will probably be having our repaired computer and mail forwarded to us the end of July or first part of August. We haven't had mail since the middle of March when Dorothy arrived in Colon, Panama.

June 25, 1998 We have just gone beachcombing. After finding three good- sized topshells to eat and a few shells for our collection we went to look for our dinghy. The tide had come in and it had floated away since we forgot to put our anchor out. We were fortunate that it hadn't gone too far. Then we went to a good-sized pearl oyster farm. Their four buildings were built on a reef and they used a generator constantly. We asked one of the workers if we could visit and he went inside to check. We were pleased that they said we could tie up our dinghy and go inside. Two men were opening oyster shells and extracting pearls from 3-year-old oysters. If the pearls were good ones they implanted new "seeds." Michel was doing this on his own for the first time, but Raimana had been doing it six days a week for four years with a few vacations to Lake Tahoe to ski and snowboard. They were using tetramycin, while implanting new seeds so that the oysters wouldn't get infected by their two instruments. They forced the oyster shells about one inch apart and checked for a pear. If the pearl wasn't perfect they killed the oyster, opened it up and took out the imperfect pearl. If the pearl was good, it was carefully removed and a "seed" of the same size was inserted in its place. Newly implanted oysters were tied to flat screens and put back in the lagoon. We were told that after the initial implant they grow for 18 months, but they only grow for 12 months after succeeding implants. One oyster can be used for four pearls, maximum. The implants they used were spheres made from Mississippi mussel shells, and the largest of those cost $180 (for a 5-mm diameter one).

This particular farm produces about 2000 pearls in three days. The grades of these vary immensely. The colors vary a lot too. Green (a color unique to this lagoon in the Gambier Islands) and black pearls (unique to the Tuamotus) are the most valuable. Pink is good, but white is bad in the Tuamotus (so we were told). We held one black pearl that they found today which was much larger than the others. They said it would sell for about $6000. Most of the pearls had some small flaw and some had big flaws.

Other workers were out in the lagoon collecting shells, inside the buildings rearranging them and putting plastic wedges in them to keep them slightly open, or getting them ready to go back into the lagoon with their new implants. Careful accounts of numbers of shells etc. were kept on chalkboards. They gave us some raw oyster meat to try. It was tender and good.

After going back to Arctracer for lunch we went to town to the school where students learn the arts and crafts dealing with oyster shells. We went there to get the 5 shells (given to us by a local family) that we had taken there to be polished the previous day. They charge $4 per shell to polish. Two of the five were great and three had slight imperfections that we couldn't see under all the growth on top when we chose them. We have five other shells for us to attempt to polish if we decide to try. We also bought four demipearls (half pearls - white) and a nicely mounted green pearl necklace (my birthday present).

(view photos of Gambier Islands)

To explain more about black pearls, here is a quote from the Lonely Planet guidebook to Tahiti and French Polynesia:

BLACK PEARL, Jewel of the Tuamotus

The main centres of production are on the Tuamotus and the Gambiers. Their lagoons, studded with pearl farms standing on piles, look like lakeside towns. The size of the operation varies from one or two people to more than 80 people for the industrial sites.

The shells of these oysters were used in ancient times to make ceremonial jewelry, fishhooks and lures. Last century, they were much sought after by the European button industry. In the 1960's, over exploitation of natural beds and the decline of the button industry sounded the death knell for this activity. The culture of oysters for pearl production took over.

The formation of a pearl results from the accidental or artificial introduction of a foreign body inside the oyster. In response to this intrusion, the epithelial cells of the mantle, the animal's secretory organ, produce nacreous material to isolate the foreign body. In this way, the nucleus is gradually covered in nacre (mother-of-pearl). If the foreign body is introduced by natural means (a grain of sand or coral, for example), the result is an extremely rare natural pearl, known as a fine pearl. A pearl farmer must reproduce this natural mechanism. Firstly, the oysters are methodically reared. At certain times of the year, they release sexual substances, which are fertilised in the water. After swimming around for several weeks, the young oysters (seed oysters) attach themselves to the coral. The pearl farmer catches the seed oysters in artificial collectors sunk in the lagoon and then attaches them to underwater rearing lines.

The first stage consists of sacrificing a perfectly healthy oyster, known as the donor oyster, and this happens when the oysters reach maturity. A fragment of its mantle is removed and divided into about 50 minute particles, the grafts. The second stage is the grafting proper. The recipient oyster is fixed to a support and held open with forceps. Using a scalpel, the grafter firstly incises the back of the gonad (reproductive organ) and inserts the graft. He then introduces a perfectly spherical bead (the nucleus), about 6 mm in diameter, into the gonad so that it is in contact with the graft. The operation takes just a few seconds. The graft cells then develop around the nucleus to form the pearl sack, which, once closed, secretes the nacreous material. The grafted oysters are placed inside keepnets (metal baskets) and lowered back into the lagoon suspended from strings. They are then regularly inspected and cleaned.

Layer upon layer, the mother-of-pearl thickens around the nucleus at the rate of one mm a year. Eighteen months later, the first harvest is gathered. A second implantation may be made with a second nucleus to obtain a second, larger (15-20 mm) pearl 15 months later.

Grafting entails risks inherent to all surgical operations: of 100 grafted oysters, 25 to 30 do not survive the shock of the operation and another 25 to 30 reject the nucleus. When the time comes to harvest them, only 5 of the remaining 40 (just 2%) are perfect pearls. When a second graft is performed, the rejection rate drops to less than 10%.

The pearls are mainly used for jewelry in rings and pendants. Several factors determine their value: the diameter (from 8.5 - 18 mm); shape (whether it's round, i.e. perfectly spherical; ringed, i.e. with visible rings; baroque i.e. asymmetrical; or pear-shaped); quality (absence of flaws or marks) and colour. 'Black pearl' is in fact an inaccurate term. The pearl produced by Pinctada margaritifera covers a wide range of colours from pearly white to black, including deep purple, champagne, and grey.