Manihiki, a necklace of islands set in the vast blue Pacific and around 1299km from Rarotonga, is the epicentre of the Cook Islands’ pearl industry. It’s also one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth.
The Polynesians were master navigators. Their eyes traced complex star paths and sensed the ocean’s subtle mood shifts, the delicate sea tone changes, currents and seabird life that signaled land. In the 13th century they discovered some of the most remote islands in the world – Manihiki was one of them.
Manihiki, a large atoll of some 60 motu which make up the perimeter, the deep 9km wide lagoon houses a multiplicity of pearl farms fringing on water. Rising abruptly from the 5,000-metre-deep stream floor, fewer than 500 islanders live here and all are pretty well involved with pearl production in some way.
The people of Manihiki are divided between the two main islands of Tauhunu and Tukao, which are separated by a 4km deep lagoon. Each island has a tiny school, churches, and stores. There are also a few pickup trucks but boats are the preferred vehicle. From early childhood Manihikians learn to master boat skills which provide the surety of navigating safely back home even in a low tide amongst coral heads and in the dark. The legendary black pearls are farmed by the local families on the coral outcrops.
The glorious profusion of green, blue, purple, gold and silvery hues which mirror the colours of the island’s lagoons are what create the perfect black pearls (which in fact are anything BUT black); and cause many a female heart to flutter with desire. Rare and precious – and only grown in the Pacific – black pearls are not an easy harvest. They require the daring feats of voyaging. Remote island survival and diving to world record depths; risks that reap a very small precious reward of perfection. Tens of thousands of black lipped pearl shells are fished from the waters each year. And demand an arduous daily schedule from all, in order to garner the glorious booty. From clearing and caring for the black lipped oysters, diving and collecting the spats, to the final harvesting of these lushly beautiful jewels of the sea, this is the Manihikian way of life. The pearls must spend at least 18 months in the water for first seeding and 12 months for successive seedings to provide consistently deeper nacre (mother of pearl or inner shell). The thick nacre provides higher luster, adding extra resilience for jewelers to work with and a more durable investment. These pearls are rare, beautiful and a glorious treasure.
Snorkeling, swimming and of course fishing, are all-natural sports. Marine life abounds in the lagoon – especially in the titi between August and November – and locals build coral reef traps close to the reef where huge schools are chased into “nets” made of coconut fronds. Tradition rules that when the catch is shared amongst villagers. For divers, clams with their brilliant hues of blue, the purple and green like “flowers from the sea” are beautifully bounty. And night fishing for maroro makes a fast-paced trip of excitement for ardent fans as they experience the twinkling of the spotlights from the small boats as they jet through water at immeasurable speed. Delicacies such as karori (pearl sell oysters cooked in coconut cream), crayfish and pancakes made from the squishy marshmellow like centres of the sprouting coconuts are seductive fishes that make the life on Manihiki also a gourmand’s delight.
For the craft collector, a souvenir of a rito hat or mat (made from the fine white young coconut fronds) is treasure as are the hats, bags and mats from pandanus. Not forgetting the pearl shell jewelry and shell necklaces. But truly it’s the pearls themselves that cannot be beaten for their remarkable qualities.