In the Cook Islands, the volcano of Aitutaki is quite impressive. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Cook Islands

After my visit to Tahiti and Huahine, our boat was at sea, with nothing in sight but the vast Pacific Ocean: no land, no ships, and no flying fish. My next destination was the Cook Islands, a tiny chain of only 15 islands.

The Cook Islands were first by 8 ancient tribes. They all worshipped the same gods: Tangaroa, creator and sea god; Tane, god of crafts and warfare; and Rongo, god of fertility and crops.

The first European to arrive was Captain James Cook, who discovered one of the southern Cook Islands on his last voyage. He was very thorough in mapping the Pacific Ocean, as well as documenting nature and the culture of the different peoples. Captain William Bligh was the first European to visit Aitutaki in 1789, just a few weeks before he was set adrift in Tonga by the mutinous crew of HMS Bounty.

Today, the people of the Cook Islands live in villages along the beaches.There are no highrises and few signs of the western industrialized world. As a matter of fact, no building is higher than a coconut tree, and people get around mostly on motor scooters on the one road that skirts the island. The small native population is supported by New Zealand as part of the British domain.

Environmentally protected, these remote islands are one of the few places left that are still pristine, idyllic, and a paradise to see, with palm-shaded white beaches and crystal-clear waters in the protected lagoons. Inland, there are paw-paw fields, with coconut, banana, and pineapple plantations still exist. Life is laid back, there is no crime to speak of, the scenery is natural, and the natives are friendly. The weather is warm and the sea reasonably calm. I was looking forward to swimming, snorkeling, and spending time on the several of the Cook Islands.

After a day and night at sea, the boat slowed and carefully entered the lagoon of Aitutaki, where we dropped anchor. The most noticeable feature of this island is the distinct volcano, rising high above and surrounded by tropical vegetation, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. The island is only 8 square miles in area, with a population of 2, 500 residents.

I could see smoke rising above the thick vegetation: a sign of people with cooking fires or burning brush. Our crew took down a tender from our boat, and soon I went ashore, where I walked along the road of the one-street village. The village had a large community hall, several churches, a market, and schools. The people mostly farm and fish for their own families and hang on to some of ancestral traditions. The people are laidback and many of the younger people go to New Zealand for education or work opportunities and don’t return. It is far from any international airport, and its lagoons have no big ports or docks.

The barrier reefs are filled with colorful fish and plant life. Aitutaki is a swimmer’s paradise. The climate is warm and the water clear. This was a dream come true for me to be here, spending time in the water.

After a quick walk in the village, I went on the small motorized tender, to the most beautiful beach of a tiny island called Honeymoon Island. As I walked along the beach, tiny crabs darted into holes. Although it was raining at Aitutaki, perhaps a mile or two away, the sun was shining here. There were a few tropical trees in the center of the atoll, and several red-tailed tropical birds flew overhead. To my surprise, I found an egg on the ground, under a tree. There were no crowds here on this hot, sunny day on this fine sand beach. After a few hours, the tender came back. Imagine a pristine island on a warm day, with the clearest water for swimming, and no crowds. All alone! This was paradise.

(posted February 9, 2016)

Looking inside a cultured pearl in Huahine. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Huahine: Black Pearl Farm

Years ago, I learned about the black pearls of Tahiti, and I have been interested in them ever since. On our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband and I went to Hawaii, and he bought me a black pearl pendant. That was two decades ago; now, I am on Huahine in the South Pacific, headed out in the lagoon, riding in an outrigger canoe with a small attached outboard motor, to visit a black pearl farm. It is here, under the calm waters of the sheltered lagoon, that the world’s famous black pearls are naturally grown.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, south of the Equator, are scattered pearl islands, built by lava and coral. A coral barrier encloses the fragile lagoons. The more recent the island, the smaller the lagoon, and the older the island, the bigger the lagoon; after millions of years, the volcanic island will disappear under the sea and the coral barrier, called an atoll, will grow.

While in the outrigger canoe, I could see in the distance a tiny building, out in the water, built on stilts called a “fare greffe.” It didn’t take long before I was standing under the straw roof of the structure, where the black pearls are brought up from under the water.

Looking out over a Huahine lagoon, where the oysters that produce pearls are on strings underneath the water. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Looking out over a Huahine lagoon, where the oysters that produce pearls are on strings underneath the water. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I learned the history and many facts about producing black pearls. The black pearl is inside of a large oyster (nacre). All oysters do not produce pearls, but many bivalves do, including the white pearls of Japan. Pinctada margitifera is the large oyster that produces the black pearl of Tahiti. An adult nacre can live up to 30 years. The black pearl nacre can attain a diameter of 30 cm and weigh 5 kilos. To grow, it must live within the calm waters of a lagoon. When a nacre is two or three years old, it will begin to produce eggs and over a lifetime, it will lay over a million eggs. Most eggs never survive. Those that do grow into larvae, which are prey for animals feeding on plankton. Then the young still left are prey to triggerfish. Fragile pinctada margaritifera need constant care to survive.

There is a slight difference between a fine pearl and a cultured pearl. Both are natural pearls produced by a bivalve, and with both nacres, a foreign particle such as a piece of sand enters the tissues of the nacre. This bothers the nacre, which reacts by secreting a thin coat of aragonite around the intruder and keeping it in constant rotation. After a time, it becomes isolated, with layers of this secretion forming a pearl. The difference with the cultured pearl is that the foreign particle is surgically implanted by a human and the nucleus is a tiny bead. Under an x-ray the difference can be determined. The fine pearl has nearly disappeared from the world market.

During the first colonization of the Polynesian Islands, there were pearl divers. The natives used black pearls for buttons and ornaments as well as jewelry. It was so popular in the early nineteenth century that empty sharp shells covered the shallow waters of the beaches. As the fine black pearls became more difficult to find, the divers had to dive in deeper water which became dangerous work because of moray eels, sharks, and pressure to the brain from diving too deep. Later the black pearl trade was overgrown, and the local government put heavy bans on the black pearl industry, limiting it entirely to cultured pearls and only a select few pearl farms. The first cultured pearl was harvested in 1893 in Japan, and a more successful grafting technique was invented there in 1904. Kokichi Mikimoto from Japan became the real promoter of cultured pearls.

As I stood on the fare greffe, a woman brought out several trays of black pearls divided into six catergories: A to F. I looked around the tiny room at the few trays that were on top of several cabinets. She explained that it takes four years for a black pearl to be formed and then only one percent of those pearls pass inspection to be certified by the government. They are ranked on orient and luster; color, which ranges from black to gray to peacock green and bronze; shape, the perfect round or pear shape is still most valued; and fourth, purity, best having no scratches, tiny holes, spots, stripes, or unevenness. Then there is the Keshi, which forms when the black pearl nacre rejects the nucleus and forms little odd shaped pearls. These are used in creating novelty jewelry and are becoming quite collectable today.

Here are the famous black pearls, in Huahine. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Here are the famous black pearls, in Huahine. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I was at the best place in the world to find black pearls: most of these pearls will be sent to New York, Paris, and London. Here I found keepsakes for our daughter and granddaughters. I took the small parcel, happily got into the little outrigger canoe, and off we headed across the lagoon to the island. I had not expected to go to a black pearl farm, so this was a special little adventure.

(posted February 2, 2016)

Looking out into the Huahine lagoon, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Huahine: Society Islands

A great way to see the islands of the South Pacific is by boat: this is what I had decided to do when I planned this trip. I also found a ship small enough to go into the lagoons, with fewer people on board. I was leaving a cold region at the beginning of winter and coming to the tropics below the Equator at the end of spring. Perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving.

Barrier reefs surround each island and form protected lagoons; these can be beautiful, as you can see in my photo of Huahine, at the top of this blog post. Most islands have no docks, and basically, a single-lane highway skirts the island. Many of the islands have no roads and no villages.

Huahine was formed by two volcanoes: there are two separate islands that are joined by a very short bridge. In all, Huhaine covers 28.9 square miles. One part is Huahine Nui (big) and Huahine Iti (small). At one time, Huahine was the center of Polynesian culture. There are many archeological sites and some of the Moreas (ceremonial temples) are now restored.

The villages are very small, with just a store or market, a gas station, and a church. There are several private resorts, for tourists, that are quite well hidden with vegetation. Crime is very low.

In Faie, a river runs through the village, and the river is home to Tahitian eels, which are sacred to the native people. They were 3 to 6 feet long, with fins on their sides, and their eyes are blue. They are found only on Tahiti, Moore, and Huahine. Natives come every day to feed them canned mackerel. They are tame and will slither and jump up to you to be fed!

Six of us from the ship went with a local guide, who used his truck to take us into the hills of the rain forest, on a dirt road, and later to off-road sites on Huahine. We stopped in the wooded hills, where he showed us a particular tree such as the breadfruit tree (uru) and explained all its uses.

The fruit from the breadfruit tree was the main stay of the Polynesian diet before the arrival of Captain Cook. Captain Bligh of The Bounty saw a means of feeding slaves at a low price and was planning to transport breadfruit to the West Indies at the time of the mutiny. The breadfruit tree produces 3 times a year for fifty years. From the bark, latex is extracted, and it is used as a plaster for fractures, sprains, and rheumatism. Natives cooked the breadfruit and the mash served as the main food in the diet. It was also fermented to eat on long voyages.

We took a dozen stops to learn about several other trees, fruit, or flowers. There were so many remedies: the juice from one type of seed took away the redness your eyes develop from being in the salt water. An infusion from a flower will heal sunburn. The natives are still using these natural medicines. We stopped at a tiny home where a woman was selling vanilla beans. Vanilla is an orchid which grows from trees on Huahine. I bought some vanilla beans to try in my baking back home.

We went to a beautiful, isolated beach. It reminded me of Castaway with Tom Hanks. I could easily imagine the Swiss Family Robinson as I stood here, seeing nothing but the vast Pacific Ocean and a deserted island. When the islands were formed by volcanoes millions of years ago, the lands created were barren. Floating seeds from coconuts and other plants formed the vegetation covering the islands today.

We drove to Fare, the main village, and passed the Maitai Lapita Village, now a resort; 4,000 years ago, ancestors to the Polynesian people sailed here. Huahine is noted for the beauty of its forests, and the most beautiful lagoons and white sand beaches in the world. Now that I have come this far across the world, I am excited to see much more. This is just the beginning of an experience in paradise.

(posted January 26, 2016)