By Josh Humbert, Tahitian Pearl Farmer, Kamoka Pearls
Imagine driving down the freeway at 100 mph then sticking your head out the window. The sound is deafening, you have to squint, straining your neck against the force of the wind. This is what Tahitian pearl farmers went through recently–but without the car–with the passage of cyclone Oli in Polynesian waters. Though 1998 saw a rash of cyclones, the Tahitian islands have not seen a cyclone this far west since tropical cyclone Veena hit in the 1982-83 season.
For those unfamiliar with this unique geography, atolls are giant rings of narrow land (often partly submerged) that encircle an immense lagoon. The enclosed lagoon serves as a sort of holding pen for oysters in their planktonic stage, making the collection of juveniles and subsequent pearl culture possible.
A pearl farm’s location in an atoll, relative to the direction of wind generated by a cyclone, usually dictates whether it will be damaged or not. Our farm Kamoka is on the typically windy West side. This is the side that gets trade winds year round but when the wind really blows, it almost always comes from the west or northwest.
Thanks to the Internet, we were able to prepare for the cyclone long before it reached us, and we moved or tied down everything that could float or fly away. The East side of the atoll was badly hit, though, with a number of pearl farms, homes, docks and marinas erased from the Waterworld-like back drop. The waves that built up over the few miles of distance from the west to east side teamed up with rising sea levels to smash everything but the most solid structures.
For the few farmers still producing pearls in our islands, the destruction could only be discouraging. Others like us who were lucky enough to find themselves on the right side of the island may find a silver lining in these stormy times. When massive amounts of clean, well oxygenated ocean pushes into a lagoon, the old, silt-laden water gets pushed out. The result is often an improvement in pearl quality as well as a triggering, through thermic shock, of spawning on a massive scale. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed and our eyes on the weather charts.
Meanwhile, the Tahitian government has stepped up to help farmers, but the blow of the storm may very well be the nail in the coffin for many embattled pearlers. After two years of local prices being lower than the cost of production, many are at their breaking point. In the year to come, we will very likely see the supply capacity of Tahitian pearls tested.
Josh Humbert has been passionately involved in farming Tahitian pearls for over 18 years. From being one of the first non-Japanese pearl grafters in the country, to weathering two industry crashes and selling internationally, pearls remain his first love. Reach Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.kamokapearls.com.