|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.
Manihiki is a large atoll with 60 motu that make up the perimeter, and is a deep 9km lagoon that houses a multiplicity of pearl farms fringing the water. Rising abruptly from the deep sea floor, fewer than 500 islanders live here and all are pretty well involved with pearl production in some way.
Life on Manihiki
The villagers are divided between the two main islands of Tauhunu and Tukao (where the government administration is based). Each has a school, churches, stores and a few pickup trucks. A 4km deep lagoon separates the two. Boats are the preferred vehicle. From early childhood Manahikians 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 – known to stir many a heart – are farmed by local families on the coral outcrops.
The glorious profusion of green, blue, purple, gold and silvery hues which mirror the colours of the islands’ 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 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 or 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. The thick nacre provides higher lustre, adding extra resilience for jewellers to work with and a more durable investment. These pearls are rare, beautiful and a glorious treasure.
Abundant Sea Life
Snorkelling, swimming and of course fishing are natural sports. Marine life abounds in the lagoon – especially the titi between August and November – and locals build coral fish traps close to the reef where huge schools are chased into nets made of coconut fronds. Tradition rules when the catch is shared amongst the villagers. For divers, clams with their brilliant hues of blue, purple and green like “flowers from the sea” are beautiful bounty.
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 the water at immeasurable speed. Delicacies such as karori (pearl shell oysters cooked in coconut cream), crayfish and pancakes made from the squishy marshmallow like centre of sprouting coconuts are seductive dishes 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 jewellery and shell necklaces. But truly it’s the pearls themselves that cannot be beaten for their heart fluttering qualities.