Atoll of the Black Pearls
Diving for black pearls at Kamoka Pearl Farm on the remote atoll of Ahe in the Tuamotu archipelago.
Words by Beau Fleminster
Most of us hadn’t been to the vast archipelago of atolls (an expanse the size of Western Europe) known as Tuamotu — we just knew it was remote as hell and took over a day’s sail just to get to that first ring of broken coral. Our first lagoon-of-harbor was a sun-baked, northerly atoll called Ahe, known for scuba diving and Tahitian black pearls. We were going to Kamoka Pearl Farm there, a place that Jeff Johnson had been to, I believe with National Geographic and Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, 20 years prior.
At Kamoka Pearl Farm they sustainably harvest black pearls and welcome people to come and work on their little farm. Josh Humbert, who is the son of the owner Patrick, basically manages Kamoka and he picks us up, no shoes, no shirt, just some boardshorts and a black pearl necklace. That his only look the entire time. He ushers us over to a little boat, and we load up all of our gear in his little tinnie.
He takes us across the lagoon, which is a good 45-minute, maybe an hour-long motorboat ride, and he prefers to go slowly, so as not to leave a carbon footprint. So, we could’ve probably done it in a faster boat in half the time, but he’s just kind of like that, which is really hilarious, because we were just kind of, like, puttering along across this huge lagoon to the other side, to where Kamoka Pearl Farm is.
About an hour later, we get there, and the farm is kind of an over-water bungalow setup with, like, a long, narrow, wooden pier that stretches to land on the motu. It looks a little bit like a setup from the movie Waterworld, back when people were apocalyptically living on the water. The pearl farm has been around since the early ‘90s. Before that, Josh’s dad Patrick, who’s kind of this, like, mad scientist-style French inventor, moved to California, met Josh’s mom, and then the plan was to sail across the Pacific, maybe all the way to New Zealand, or something like that.
Patrick had never even built a boat before, and he just looks in, like, “Wooden Boat” magazine in the mid 70s, gets some instructions on how to build a boat, and literally builds one over the course of the next few months, on his own, in a harbor in Marina del Rey, Southern California. And then Patrick and his pregnant wife — they might’ve had Josh just right before they left — literally just take a newborn baby with them, and sail all the way to the Marquesas, and then down to Ahe. They really fell in love with Ahe atoll and after a few years ended up creating Kamoka Pearl Farm, which definitely went through a full on heyday as far as the black pearls industry goes, back in the 90s.
They were supplying to many different celebrities and different fashion houses for a couple decades, and at the same time, they created some really amazing sustainable pearl farming practices. Josh makes their own extracting instruments and other tools, and they basically have these WWOOFer volunteers (World Wide Opportunity of Organic Farms) come over, who just stay as long as they want, and they earn their keep.
So these backpacking WWOOFers, they learn all the different ways that goes into harvesting the pearls, from diving for them, and changing the baskets, and removing certain oysters to put them in different waters, and there’s this whole, meticulous sustainable-farming approach to it. We stayed with them out on the bungalow, and just kind of found a place wherever we could sleep, and for the next few days spent the night there, and ate with them, and got to know their WWOOFer dynamic, with all the different transient people that come and want to visit this paradise.
The WWOOFers can stay there, get food and board by working on the farm, and everybody was really lovely. Josh’s dad Patrick is sort of a gruff Frenchman that doesn’t speak any English, but he’s awesome as well. We went spear-fishing, too, and Josh is an amazing diver, who caught us a lot of fish. We’d just go to the pass outside of the lagoon (away from the pearls) and he’d catch us dinner each night.
It’s like, you go out to the pass between two motus, and you pretty much just hop off and you’re guaranteed some fish. The place is just teeming with fish, and also reef sharks. There was sharks everywhere, literally circling the little over-water bungalow all hours of the day and night which was interesting, and pretty trippy, but that’s just normal there. I remember there was sort of a bird’s-nest perch on the house that has a little room up above the over-water bungalow, and Nate and Jeff went up there to sleep.
There wasn’t much room for more, but I went downstairs on the first night after the lights turned off, and was just going to set up my little mat to sleep down there. They cut the lights and I turned a head-lamp on, and instantly there were, like, a zillion roaches. So, I was like, NOPE, not sleeping with them, so I went upstairs, and went head to toe with two men, and that was fun. But it was just a really interesting experience, and Jeff got to meet a friend he hadn’t seen in 20 years, and sort of had a déjà vu working on this pearl farm 20 years later after so much, or, maybe so little had changed.
Ahe is just a gorgeous place, too. We did, like, a 200-dollar beer run (things are expensive in the atolls), and got basically, like, 48 beers for 200 bucks, something like that, and just partied real hard one night with everyone well into the late hours. Papa Patrick even sent it, too, which was great to see. And surprising. By the end of our stay, it felt like we learned the whole operation of pearl harvesting, even learned to dive a buoy down underwater and tie it off, and most of us went home with a handful of rare black pearls that Patrick sold us on the cheap.