Manihi, immense crown of coral and majestic lagoon, cradle of the Black Pearl. An alliance of tradition and overture on the world where each encounter is a surprising discovery.
The immense lagoon where the Black Pearl was born.
Immense crown of coral located 500 Km Northeast of Tahiti, Manihi has one of the largest lagoons in the Tuamotu Archipelago, it is second in surface after Rangiroa Atoll. With its 192 Km2 of water, from turquoise to deep blue, it offers waters to its 800 inhabitants that are very rich in fish and allowing daily abundant fishing. The atoll’s crown is composed of over 200 motu, coral islets, separated by wide hoa, shallow passages, where the ocean and the lagoon meet. Only one pass, Tairapa, opens the atoll to the Pacific Ocean. About fifty meters wide, it shapes a deep undersea cliff of nearly 30 meters in its middle. Navigable, it receives supplies ships all year round, such as the Dory, which arrives each Thursday, loaded with all kinds of supplies for the two groceries and various materials stores.
The Dutch navigators Willem Schouten and Jacob le Maire, were the first Europeans to observe the atoll in 1616 during an exploration mission. They called it Waterlandt impressed perhaps by the immensity of its lagoon. This name didn’t survive, as it was already called Manihi in Pa’umotu language. This language, the Mihiroa, is except for a few words, the same language spoken in all the Tuamotu atolls. Today, the inhabitants of Manihi live from copra, fishing and tourism. The village of Tuipaoa borders the pass on the Western side of the atoll. On the other side of the pass lays the largest motu in the atoll. It hosts the airport and its runway, as well as the Pearl Beach Hotel.
The construction of the airport and the presence of the hotel, where many islanders work have generated a migration of the population within the atoll, a population that lived before on the East side of the atoll in the historical village of which some remains are still visible. An ancient marae, Tokivera, stands up on the atoll’s South side, and two more, Farekura and Kamoka, on the North side. Most families live in the village during the week and return each weekend to their motu, on the other side of the lagoon, where each one then lives to the rhythm so particular of the atolls. Most of the inhabitants have had their origins in Manihi for generations, and two great families share most of this heritage, as illustrated by the names engraved in the delicate stones of the Turipaoa cemetery. But the great pride of the islanders comes from the fact that Manihi was the first Polynesian atoll to produce Polynesia’s jewel, the Black Pearl. The island was indeed in the mid-sixties the first atoll to exploit this natural miracle, with the Manihi Pearl Society, a company still active today.
Today, many motu house pearl farms, some are old, other are still active, These little cabins on stilts with a roof covered with nî’au, i.e. braided coconut fronds, have taken a soft silver gray color, the color of the pearl whose birth they helped. Others have a pretty light blue roof, the color of the lagoon. Each visitor of the atoll cannot leave Manihi without this special jewel. As when you look at this poe rava, this Black Pearl, the same feeling invades everybody: this one seems to be the most beautiful one of all.
The Future Of The Atoll: A Permanent Concern
As a reflection of international preoccupations, the atoll of Manihi is working toward sustainable development. At the heart of what is at stake, are the ecosystem and the inhabitants, with the awareness that the future of the atoll depends on everyone’s efforts.
At the village, at sunrise, it is not rare to see the islanders getting busy around the houses, in the alleys and on the dock. With a rake or a small broom in the hand, they rake the gardens, they pick up the flowers that fell on the ground. There is no illegal dump in Manihi. All the trash is collected in containers in front of the houses and then brought to a processing center. Some have repainted their house with pretty colors, blue, green, yellow. Nana and Huri have selected a pretty orange color and have added a room to their house. The boats in the marina, also have each their own color, blue yellow or green, etc. Flowers pots are not rare in the small gardens, resting on Japanese grass that looks like a foam carpet, extremely soft under bare feet.
The long alleys covered with coral soup have been redone to make it easier for everyone to come and go. The new Mayor of the atoll, Mahi, is a woman and you can bet she had something to do with these latest improvements. Facing the dock a refectory is being built for the children to soon replace the old one, installed in a prefabricated building. In Manihi, beyond the purely aesthetic aspect, environment and nature, are true subjects of concern for the inhabitants. Each family in the atoll owns a motu, a true secondary residence where everyone disappears the time of a weekend. Each motu is equipped with solar panels.
Fishing is itself a ritual with many rules, in harmony with nature. With the help of spear guns, only fishes of honorable size may be caught. Fishing paua, the big clamshells, is done according to regulations. You have to be sure that its length is at least equivalent to a man’s hand. The maoa, meaty shells are collected along the hoa, at the border between the lagoon and the ocean. This collection must be done in silence, so as not to anger the ocean. Under the water or on the coral, between the lagoon and the ocean, fishing becomes an art both ecological and mystical.
The Motu, instants Of Eternity
Just as magic are the excursions to the motu. The atoll’s guesthouses as well as its hotel have made them their specialties. A day on a desert motu is a real experience. It begins with crossing the lagoon’s crystalline waters, landing on the motu, the boat resting on the sand. You have to get your feet in the water to finally reach this beach that you had been looking at with envy for long minutes, as soon as you saw it from far away. While you walk on the fine sand, the traditional meal is being prepared with the help now of Noël, the island tourist guide for many years and a native of Manihi. His expert hands scale the multicolor groupers, red snappers and parrot-fishes mixed with uru, breadfruit cooked in the Tahitian oven, the Pacific islands barbecue dug straight in the ground. Small bread buns are rising on the coals, their paste wrapped in a soft green leaf.
After this feasts, eaten with fresh coco water, comes the turn of a curious stingray or a small shark to taste fish bones and fins, A moment of communion with nature extended by a tour of the motu. Visitors share the same feeling, the feeling of being almost too lucky to be able to admire such scenery. While walking across the motu, dozens of crabs are running ahead of the visitor and seek refuge in their holes. Surprised birds observe from up there the human ballet. They are Vini, red-footed boobies, frigates, terns, nothing escapes from their black and sharp eyes. On the other side of the motu, the ocean extends further than you can see, it is dark blue to black, and contrasts with the very fresh memory you still have of the turquoise lagoon. The powerful waves crash on the coral and carve it along with the wind. These waves that appeared so big, becomes shy when they encounter the motu, as if they admitted that tranquility alone is dedicated to this enchanting scenery. Back from your walk, visitors are often enthusiastic and full of praises or sometimes astounded when they leave this little corner of paradise. Tomorrow morning, some will wonder if they dreamed it.
Manihi, A True Undersea Kingdom
While life is peaceful on land, the undersea life is more animated. The atoll offers a dozen renowned diving spots and divers from all over the world have no shortage of praises about the Manihi rich undersea life. The lagoon is not very frequented and is rich of hundreds of fish species and marine mammals. The diver has two options, either the lagoon or the ocean, as well as the pass linking these two worlds tightly connected but still different from each other. Diving in the pass gives you the impression that you are flying over the fishes swimming nearly 10 meters below. When the ocean enters the lagoon with the tide, diving en dérive lets you encounter tunas, barracudas, sharks, namely the rare sleeper sharks, as well as a multitude of fishes that seem to have called a meeting there. With a little luck, you will also encounter a few dolphins, they love the current in the passes..
On the ocean side, diving along the breathtaking cliff, dropping from three meters to 1,500 meters deep, lets you discover jackfish, napoleon fish, bonitos as well as mating groupers in July. On the lagoon side, the cirque is one of the spots accessible to everyone. Whether scuba diving or snorkeling, you will encounter moray eels, sea slugs, manta and leopard rays, white tipped and black tipped sharks. The youngest ones will certainly appreciate the agitation of small tropical fishes around coral heads, apparently to grab the last piece of food. The most curious fishes come to look straight in the diver’s mask, and nobody can tell who is the most surprised of this encounter, the fish or the diver. A marbled sea slug, a lemon shark, a manta ray, hundred of groupers, napoleons, angel fishes, trumpet fishes: this describes an ordinary diving experience in Manihi.
Discovering A Reinvented Tradition
On this atoll at the end of the world, tradition occupies an important place. Manihi’s men and women taught their children, and sometimes the visitors, the intelligence to remember, but also to smartly adapt the atoll life to modern world.
It is certainly in the month of July, during the annual Polynesian festivities, that Manihi best expresses the pride and the culture it carries in itself. When you arrive at the village, the decor is set. On the dock along the lagoon, are a dozen small booths made of wood and braided pandanus leaves, their walls are covered with colorful fabric. Each night, all the inhabitants, as well as some visitors, are getting together to eat barbecued fish or chow men, or a few brochettes of beef-heart. In Thea’s small restaurant, the decoration is each year more elaborate. On the narrow beams, beautiful baskets that she wove herself are hanging. She is cooking with her family while a Polynessian tune is playing. On the large central table a family like no other one is sitting. Two women, two men and two young girls, Micheline, Claude, Pauline and Lisa are this year on an exceptional trip. For Pauline and Lisa, this is a trip back to their roots and to the discovery of their culture. When they were born, Huri and Nana handed them over to this Metropolitan couple. Today these two Polynesian-born pretty little girls are meeting their biological parents, their many uncles, aunts and cousins who live in Manihi. A tradition among Polynesians in the old days, adoption called fa’amu, literally meaning feeding, spread to Metropolitans.
In her hand, Lisa is holding a small notebook where she notes all the words she wants to learn in pa’umotu language before the end of her trip. Her adoptive father helps her to write them, her biological father helps her to pronounce them. The youngest girl, Pauline, has already left to play with her cousins. Nana, the biological mother and Micheline, the adoptive mother, are choosing together a woven basket. One is giving advise to the other. Weaving is also used to make magnificent palm hats, but for this, you have to ask Tupana Tahoa. It is with great pride that she teaches her art to those asking her. Today, it is Pierre, a passing traveler, who is concentrating, with a palm in his hand, to reproduce the expert gestures. In all of Polynesia, woven hats often are round on top, but those are different, their top part is square. A few years ago, a boat coming from Hawaii left one of these hats as a souvenir. Tupana’s mother-in-law took apart the hat to understand this different weaving technique and taught it to her daughter-in-law. Supposedly this makes it possible to wear the hair in a bun underneath, unlike with hats with a round top! Once the hat is finished, Pierre only has to wander around in the gardens to find flowers to decorate his work. Late that night, in each part of the village, and protected from indiscrete lookers, the dance groups are rehearsing. The youngest dancers are 6 years old and lead by their parents or older brothers or sisters. Each one is concentrating. Here dancing is an art always revisited and each group intends to win the contest held in mid-July in front of City Hall. Friends and cousins accompany the dancing with the sound of ukuleles and pahu, the Polynesian drums. A song finishes the show, each one revisiting the classics of the atoll or of Tahiti. The group leader yells in pa’umotu to his dancers: “Keep your head up, smile, be proud to be in Manihi, and you will win!”
Manihi, The Cradle Of The Pearl And Of Blooming Robinson Crusoe
While discovering the pearl remains unavoidable in Manihi, the visitor is also delighted to feel the soft thrill of desert islands. Tranquility and a serenity that all travelers miss as soon as they leave this little piece of eternity that is the atoll of Manihi.
In term of aesthetics, not just the village contributes today to the success of the atoll. If Manihi is so unavoidable, it is above all because here was born the Black Pearl, this is the first Polynesian atoll that understood the value of this mother or pearl sphere, the second economic resource of the Territory. The visitor will not know Manihi if he does not visit one of the pearl farms. The first one, historically, the “Société Perlière de Manihi”, or the others, namely Faura Tapu, or still Faura Terii, reveal the secrets of this gem. Grafting, dipping the pearl oysters in the lagoon, harvesting, calibration, sorting the pearls by colors, nothing will escape the visitor. From deep black color, the pearl may take very diverse shades, from golden yellow to pale rose, all the way to emerald green.