Pearl pirates, yarrr! (part one)
Posted on June 28 2011
That day, like every other day of the week excepting Sundays, we had been up before dawn, worked all day and well into the evening, and were absolutely worn out when the moment came to shower and climb into bed. Much of our work was underwater with compressed air sent to us via a hose called a “hookah rig.” Our work below the surface was limited to the time it took for the compressor to use up a full tank of gas (about 6 hours). The advantage was obvious over traditional bottle diving but for better or worse, it allowed us to spend blocks of time underwater that were long enough to drain us of every drop of energy.
Above water, we spent daylight hours preparing oysters to be sold to other farms who had the means to graft (or seed) pearls. This was an endless job of first retrieving the oysters where they grew suspended over deep water, and then bringing them to the farm for processing—which involved gently removing them from their lines and drilling them with small holes to be hung again. This work was a means of spacing out the oysters for optimum growth and tracking quantities.
Our night-time work was primarily tying knots so we would have “chapelets” or strings the next day for hanging oysters.
On this night, as we were settling in after an exhausting workday, a far-off drone became audible over the din of the trade winds that battered the farm night and day. We both sat up and listened as a boat approached our plot of lagoon water. We knew it was our neighbor Gilles. He was a quiet guy who had come to live in Ahe from his native New Caledonia. We had never had any problems with Gilles, but lately he had been rolling with a rough crew headed by Floresse, another new-comer who like Gilles had been attracted to the atoll by tales of easy money.
Floresse stood at about 6 feet 4 inches. Atop his broad, square shoulders was a head with wild sun-bleached locks of hair and small, light eyes fixed in permanent squints against the harsh tropical sun. Despite his flowery name, his often intoxicated state made him prone to abusive language, which he had recently been yelling in the direction of our farm at night on his way to party with our neighbor.
Though we didn’t have pearls growing in them yet, our oysters represented serious sweat equity as well as monetary value, and oyster bandits are a problem that troubles every pearl farmer's sleep. Polynesians especially are natural swimmers and divers—the thought of jumping into night water, diving 30 feet in the blackness and groping around for oysters won’t slow many of them down.
(Part two coming next week)