At dawn, I lean over the lifeline and look down at Freddy. She looks back up at me from the 13 foot long Avon inflatable, balanced between the 200 foot long coil of TV cable, recording depth sounder, tape recorder, two Scuba tanks complete with regulators, back packs, and buoyancy compensators, mask, fins, snorkels, weights, wet suit, shark gun, dive bags, collecting gear, anchor, anchor line, fuel tank, TV monitor and a big umbrella.
Freddy holds the log book in one hand, the boat with the other, and a pencil in her teeth. She's got on a loose white beach robe with a hood, covering a racy black bathing suit she made yesterday. Her beach bag, filled with sun lotion, comb, mosquito repellant, band aids, Kleenex tissues, mirror, superknife, fingernail file, wrap-around, towel and God knows what else dangles from a string over her left elbow.
"What's so funny?" she waffles around the pencil in her mouth.
"Nothing," I reply, still laughing, "Let's go."
We exhilarate over the calm sea in the crisp, clear morning air bound for the far side of Doga Sui Sui passage. The tangle of islands of the Tagula complex crown the horizon with a luxurious green in the first light. Freddy, her robe rippling in the wind of our passage, unfolds the chart, criss-crossed with little red lines of our earlier transects. I glance at it, seeing where we must look today.
A ridge runs along the spine of the island and arcs into the sea to form one headland of the inner lagoon pass. It wrinkles out onto the lagoon floor with its crest about 110 feet deep. Gold Lip oysters array themselves along the undersea crest of the ridge. I visualize the vast gently undulating bottom of the lagoon and "see" clusters of disk-shaped oysters gathered on the tops of the ridges, surrounded by a flat sea of open, empty sand.
The ridge crests interact with the swiftly flowing tidal currents just like river rocks interact with the flowing river water. Ecological ripples from this interaction changes the nature of the substrate, making it slightly more rocky, the grain of the sand coarser, and this, in turn, results in a new wrinkle - Gold Lip Oysters.
Nobody knows much about the ecology of Gold Lip Oysters. Like other oysters, they spawn by ejecting eggs and sperm into Sea. These unite and grow into little swimming larvae. They live as tiny floating members of Sea's zooplankton community for an unknown time and then, their larval shell growing heavier and heavier with each passing hour, they must come down and settle on the bottom.
Somehow, the larvae detect those subtle ripples in Sea denoting the right habitat. The correct depth, the right amount of tidal current, the proper substrate for the baby to attach to. I try to imagine a gold lip larva hanging suspended in the perfectly still sea. The bottom, from it's perspective, is racing by. What tells it the proper time has arrived? How does it know? The timing must be close. Wait too long and the tide currents will sweep the young oyster far out to sea, where it will sink to a cold black oblivion in the abyss. Settle too soon, and the bottom will be too shallow or too loose or covered with filter feeding corals and the baby will die. Of course, most of them do die. Perhaps one in a hundred million will do it right and survive.
As we skim around the headland I shout, over the sound of the outboard, "Man, I don't envy the Aussie pearl divers." They sailed up here from Thursday Island in the beginning of the Century and dove with a hard hat rig.
"Why?" Freddy shouts back.
"I used one of those big, two-man, hand driven air pumps once, just to see what a bitch it was. It was a bitch." Turning the big wheels constantly for hour after hour in this heat must have been unreal.
"I thought you meant the tide rip and those hoses they had."
"Yeah, that, too. Another bitch." I've used the same rig in Florida, on the edge of the Gulf Stream in a knot and a half current. It's tough work, the pull on a one-inch diameter hose, some 200 feet long, is horrendous. Here the tide can run 4 knots. I guess they must have gone with it, holding their coiled line with one arm, bouncing along the bottom in great loping strides, like a man running downhill full speed. How the hell did they stop to pick up oysters? Maybe they only could work at slack tide.
Anyway, they surveyed the lagoon back then, in the 1920's. Matthew says they came back once, just after the war, to fish the pearl beds again. The islanders remember both expeditions and know exactly where the pearl luggers operated.
I cut back on the throttle and the Avon slews to a stop. I make a rough check of our position on the chart and heft the TV camera over the side. In the water it is nearly weightless, floating with the lens pointed down and forward. A lead weight suspended on a 2 meter long tether hangs down below it to maintain a steady height over the bottom. I hand Freddy the cable and she begins to lower the camera.
I take bearings with my sextant, turn on the TV monitor and the tape recorder. "Transect 18, Doga Sui Sui Pass, North Start." I record the exact bearings. "Tide running about one knot. Depth 19.5 fathoms. TV is working OK. OK, there's the bottom Freddy - a little lower. Lower....slowly."
The high resolution image of the sandy bottom sharpens as Freddy lowers the camera at the end of the long cable. The lead tell-tail lands on the sand with a silent puff and I say "Stop. Up a fraction." The lead weight comes off the bottom. "Hold it. OK. Start Transect Time 0656....NOW." I push the marker button on the fathometer recorder and glance at Freddy. She is squinting through the compass binoculars and holding the video cable at the same time.
"North Point 350º," she swings, "Nimoa Point 3......67º." I repeat this into the mike and add, "Big Banyan point A lined up with lone palm on ridge, and - uh, Nimoa Point 3 just touching Sudest point."
I burrow under the black cloth viewing hood and relax as the bottom unfolds on the TV screen. The camera is flying just two meters off the sand, oriented at 60º down tilt. The image is crystal clear. The Avon drifts with the tide so the bottom scrolls down the screen at a sedate, even pace.
"So? What's down there?" It's a shame she can't watch and work the cable at the same time.
"Not much, mostly sand with a small soft coral here and there," I mumble. But the scene is fascinating. I get the same wonderful feeling as when I'm down there, flying through a pass. Each moment something surprising appears on the TV screen. The hunt for the precious Gold Lip makes it even more exciting. And to see them takes concentration, so I'd better stop daydreaming. With the 250,000 or so pixels on the monitor screen I must discern a pattern of gentle shading in the shape of a circle. Well not a circle, an arc, where the sharp edge of the Gold Lip lifts off the bottom as the animal opens its valves to filter the water for its food.
"Mark. Two there. Up a bit with the camera, bottom coming up slightly," The lead bounces into the sand a few times until Freddy pulls up the cable a little. "Ok, good. There's another one, they are starting."
I keep my finger on the depth sounder marker button and my eyes on the TV screen. "Mark. Another. Two more......There, one." At each oyster I record its position on the depth sounder and the tape recorder. Both are keeping a time log. We will compare the logs to the distance covered and convert into spatial distribution. The oysters get more abundant as the bottom slowly rises to the crest of the ridge. I try to guess where the center of the population is by keeping track of the numbers seen per unit of time. As the numbers level off I say, "OK Mark. End of transect," and toss the anchor over the side. We take bearings and note our position, depth, and time.
"We are right in the middle of them," I say in a voice suggesting someone rubbing their hands together with anticipation. "Right in the middle of a big city of Gold Lips."
I wiggle into the Scuba gear. It is 110 feet deep. The tide is slowing to a stop.
"Just think. Right here the divers of old used to stomp around the pearl oyster beds in big bulky hard hat rigs seeking natural pearls amid monster tiger sharks and man-eating octopus."
"Yeah? Well I'm sure the sharks are still around, you be careful down there," Freddy offers me the shark gun.
"I can't handle the gun and all this other crap. If I see a shark, I'll stuff it in the collection sac." I grab my big yellow net dive bag and slither into Sea, being very careful not to splash any water into the dinghy with all the electronics. Just as my head sploops under I hear Freddy murmur to herself "Just be careful, OK?" and her voice carries real fear in its overtones.
On the way down I think about an oil rig diver I knew in Louisiana. He was a good diver, but maybe not too swift. We made a 600 foot saturation dive together in 1968. Oil rig divers work in really difficult conditions, often at night, often in water so dirty everything is done by feel.
I vividly remember him telling me, one night, as we descended to the pump head "Christmas tree" in 600 feet of water, he always kept his eyes closed when he worked. "See? If a shark is there, I won't know it. It ain't gonna bother me. Know what I mean?"
I thought he was dumb. But, as I drop down the thin anchor line towards the bottom, I don't look around into the gray gloom. I just look down and anticipate Gold Lip oysters.
The dive is necessary to check our TV population count. The camera transect will miss a certain percentage of oysters. A personal visit gives an idea of what the miss rate is. Not to mention the need to take some samples to check shell quality, incidence of natural pearls, and the tastiness factor. I smile around the mouthpiece as the bottom appears. The water is clear and I see the first oyster long before I reach bottom.
Touch down. The Predator has landed. The tide is sluggish now and I am free to wander around for maybe 10 minutes - longer than I want to stay at this depth anyway. I secure the sac to the anchor line and look at the TV camera suspended a few meters away. It is turned in my direction and I know Freddy is up there watching me. I swim by the camera, look into its lens, remove my mouthpiece and give her a big kiss. Laughing, I put the mouthpiece back in and move quickly over to the nearest oyster.
It's a big one, more than a foot in diameter, like a big dinner plate. Yes, not a bad analogy, actually, as that's exactly what it's going to metamorphose into, come dinner time.
Carefully, without touching it, I note its feeding position, depth in the sand, orientation to the current. I search the area millimeter by millimeter for juveniles, predators, signs of disease. Then I lift it up - it is heavy, unattached - it snaps shut. I swim over and drop it in the sac and head for another.
"Hey, hey, hey, what have we here? Hello there little guy." The next specimen has a little baby gold lip attached to it by a byssis of thin golden threads. "You obviously knew how to find the right habitat, didn't you?" It simply waited until it sensed the metabolites of an adult Gold Lip and swam down and attached to it. Must have attached at ebb tide. Otherwise, by the time it was down-current and could sense the adult, it could never swim back up current towards the scent. I take baby and the big clam and frisbee them into the sac.
The sac, hanging from the anchor line, is bulging with oysters and I've located one more juvenile. Both babies attached themselves to an adult. My watch says 9 minutes bottom time. I climb, hand over hand, up the anchor line, looking up at my bubbles. The Avon is a tiny rubber balloon at the end of my string, floating on a silver sky. Once and awhile I make a slow pivot to survey the blue-gray cavern of Sea. No sharks. Or, if there are, they blend in perfectly with the gloom and I can't see them.
When I pause to decompress at minus ten feet, Freddy's face appears over the side of the Avon, peering down through the silver sky. When my decompression stop is finished, I walrus aboard and haul up the anchor line with its sac full of Gold Lips. It is surprisingly heavy and when it comes out of the water it is too heavy to lift aboard. Freddy and I break out into a fit of giggling.
"Get a bit greedy down there?" she laughs, hanging on to the anchor line with me.
"Damn, I didn't think it would be this heavy." I sober up and tie off the line. "Can't just drag it aboard, the edges of those things are sharp." For some reason, the thought of the oysters slicing the pneumatic tube strikes Freddy as funny. She goes, "Psssssst," and makes a flying motion with her hand.
Finally, after we stop giggling and rest a minute, I take off my wet suit jacket, lay it over the tube to protect the rubber and then, together, we heave the bag up on top of the tube, let it drain, and roll it inboard carefully so as not to soak everything. Both of us are grinning like greedy fools. Pearls, pearls, pearls.
Back aboard Moira, I carefully cut the byssal threads, separating the baby Gold Lips from the adults. I measure them to the nearest tenth of a millimeter, put them in a wire cage and suspend it over the stern. Then we sit on the stern deck and sort the big oysters into groups, measure them, weigh them, and finally open them, clean out the meat and sort it into waste and eatable segments.
Walter Cat is all over us, his legs, tail, nose, belly and big eyes seem to be always between my face and my hands. The only way I can keep him back is to keep throwing him nuggets of Gold Lip Flesh. He gobbles them up and purrs back for more.
Naturally our fingers can not help but probe for round hard objects in the flesh as we work. "I've found one!" Freddy yelps. There, in the palm of her hand is an exquisite pure white round, gem quality, gleaming natural pearl. "Whoooeee! Look at that!" I gape and quickly bend to open another oyster. When we finish, Freddy holds six little pearls in her hand. I take a photograph of her and our treasure. Through the camera I see her laughing, a white sailor's cap on her salt curled gold hair, the black bathing suit revealing her trim, smooth body, and big gold lip oysters scattered amid the dive gear on Moira's deck.
We have neatly stacked the cleaned shells in a plastic tub and Freddy is getting ready to try her culinary skills on the big, round adductor muscles of the oysters. I have written up our data for the day and now have a fair idea of the size of the population in this part of the lagoon.
"I figure there are maybe 15,000 animals total. Probably less. And limited to just the one ridge." I mutter to Freddy. She nods and does not comment. "Everywhere else there is something wrong, maybe the substrate, the sand, the water current. Or maybe the oysters are only in one place because there are already oysters there." I look up from the chart but only Walter Cat is paying attention. Anyway, the kilometers of bottom around the population of oysters is just open empty sand.
At least now I know juvenile oysters settle ON adult shells and attach to them. Later they obviously detach and move off by themselves and grow to maturity. Actually, many invertebrate larvae actively seek adults. It's a reasonable evolutionary adaptation. Where there are adults, especially sedentary, non moving animals, conditions must be right for the young.
We still have many places to look, but I'll bet this population is the primary one in this area. It was, according to Matthew, the only place the pearl luggers spent much time working. There and Snake Pass.
Freddy pushes my papers out of the way - "Clear the table" she announces, "Dinner is ready."
I can not believe how good Gold Lips are. Better than Abalone. Freddy has sliced the muscles into thin disks, pounded them tender, dipped them in eggs and bread crumbs and then lightly fried these tender morsels in garlic butter. She serves them with wild rice, sliced steamed squash, and ice cold Papaya Milkshakes.
A single oyster fills me to the brim. I chase it down into the depths with a splash of brandy as I sit on the afterdeck watching the evening stars emerge.
"It will make a great village industry," I say to Walter the cat.
"What?" asks Freddy, just coming out on deck.
"I say, it will make a great village industry. I don't think there are enough oysters to support much of a commercial operation, but there are enough to support a little industry like Dennis George and Yuli have going in Samarai. After the pearls are ready and they harvest the oysters, fisheries can deep freeze the scallops as a gourmet specialty item. Plus they can sell the shells, too, for pearl buttons."
"Or they could carve the shells to make lures or jewelry," Freddy suggests.
"Sure, they could even start making Kina from the shell and each one would be worth lots and lots of paper Kina."
"Well, whatever. They'll drop the whole thing when they find out there are not millions upon millions of oysters down here." Freddy snorts a very unladylike snort. "The Port Moresby bureaucrats couldn't care less about village development. They only care about themselves and have got that old treasure-of-the-sea complex real bad."
"Aw, come on, Freddy, you've never even met the Port Moresby crowd...." I stop, remembering the story about Fisheries' aquatic economist. Maybe Freddy is right. "Now we've looked around, I'm sure Matthew must have dropped the economist right in the middle of the population where we were today."
"I can just see this guy," Freddy chuckles, doing a little dance as she imitates him putting on his tanks, "He dons his Mike Nelson Double Tanks, dives in and lands right in the middle of Oyster City. I'll bet his eyes bugged right out of his head."
"He must have thought they just dropped him anywhere and the oysters were everywhere in this lagoon. Millions and millions and millions of big Gold Lip Pearl Oysters." I gaze out over the broad expanse of night sea.
"Money, money, money," Freddy rubs her fingers together. "Just like Yuli and Dennis said, this red-haired money man wanted to put himself in charge of a huge grant to begin a full scale commercial pearl culture project."
"Well, maybe so. I didn't believe Dennis, but maybe it's true. Matthew did say the guy went nuts, filling up bag after bag of shell."
"It's a wonder the idiot didn't drown himself," Freddy settles down next to me and plays with her pearls, her face deep in thought as she imagines what she is going to make with them. I sit next to her and look at the night sky, sip my drink, relax, feeling great. Freddy says maybe she'll cast an octopus out of gold to hold onto the pearl.
Man, what a kick to find a pearl in one of those big Gold Lips. The mystery as you finger the heavy shell, not knowing what's in there. Cutting the muscle, opening the shell like some long lost treasure chest from the bottom of the sea. The electric shock of joy and avarice as your fingertip touches the round, hard pearl in the soft flesh.
I can see how pearl divers can get suckered into staying on the bottom for just one more. A deadly whirlpool game with a terrifying death by boiling blood at the end.
"I don't care what the Japanese say," Freddy holds our finest pearl in the soft light from the companionway, "Cultured pearls are NOT the same as natural pearls." She gently touches the pearl to her front teeth and rolls the pearl over the enamel. This is a test to see if a pearl is genuine. If it has a gritty feel to the tooth, it's real. If it feels slippery smooth, it's a fake.
"You're right. Jewelry has always been closely allied with magic. Rings and pendants were talisman with powerful links to the forces of nature. And pearls have always been said to have great magical powers."
Natural gem quality pearls are more rare than diamonds, emeralds or rubies. The Hindus consider the two great gems or maharatnani, to be the diamond and the pearl. The diamond represents the sun, the pearl the moon. The sanskrit word for pearl is Mukta, and in Burma, pearls are known as Pa-le. Burmese value the pearl for occult purposes, rating it third after the ruby and diamond in magical powers.
The Book of Revelation describes the door to heaven as pearly gates. Mohammed said the third heaven is made of pearls. The Chinese Dragon is eternally chasing the radiating pearl.
"The pearl is the gem of the sea, pure, and fair to look upon." I murmur, gazing at the glowing, perfect sphere in freddy's hand.
"Nothing at all like a cultured pearl," Freddy insists. "Maybe I'll mount this one as a ring, a gold dolphin ring holding the pearl with it's tail and flipper."
An Englishman, I forget his name, living in the Far East discovered the process of culturing pearls. He glued little lead Buddha's to the inside of the shell and the oyster coated them with pearlescent material. It was just a curio to him, but the Japanese took to the idea and made it into a global commercial enterprise.
Before cultured pearls, gem quality pearls were unbelievably valuable. Only one oyster in 10,000 contained a gem quality pearl. Large, perfect, spherical pearls have bought and sold kingdoms. Most of the old time pearl beds have been fished to oblivion or wiped out by disease or pollution. So natural pearls are more rare today than ever before.
Diamonds are forever, but lots of things destroy natural pearls. Acids and alcohol can ruin their luster. Skin oils and perspiration contain acids and some perfumes and colognes and many cosmetics containing alcohol can damage them. They can be easily broken. A fall can crack them. So while gold and diamonds accumulate through history, the natural pearl, like the living thing it is, must be remade by Sea or vanish into extinction.
Japanese propaganda has ruined the commercial value of natural pearls around the world. Except, that is, for those few jewelers who continue to make really magical items for the superrich. "You're right, you know," I say. "Commercially grown pearls are not the same as natural pearls at all."
"Of course not. They start with their inserted seeds, then they harvest the pearls, clean off any imperfections, trim them round, chemically dye or bleach the pearls, and then polish, drill, and string them.."
"There is, of course, a certain magic about this, too. If you like industrialized magic." I laugh.
"But this one is real," the natural pearl glints in Freddy's elfin fingers. "You can feel it when you hold it. Here, take it."
I gingerly take it in my hand and examine it. It's true. The natural pearl is a rare phenomenon. It began with a minuscule, sharp fragment of shell or sand carried into the oyster by the surging tide. The oyster could not rid itself of this irritating bit . Every move abraded sharp edges against delicate flesh. So the Gold Lip made a layer of silky nacre around the irritation to ease the pain. Year after year, the oyster lay on the bottom of Sea adding slowly to this curious object in its delicate tissues - turning it over and around, layering relief onto the irritant.
Anyone sensitive to magic will understand the difference in value between a real and a cultured pearl. Cultured pearls involve trauma to the oyster - capture, forcible rape and intrusion of the seed, the oyster held captive, crammed unnaturally together with many others in wire cages hung suspended in the sea. Cultured pearls are impregnated with Man.
How unlike the Japanese, who are usually so sensitive to natural beauty, to pretend this is the same as the soft year by year layering of a perfect gem-like moon in the smooth rolling tissues of a being living deep in the breast of Sea.
In the reflected light from Moira's cabin, and the luminous night sky, the pearl glows with a ethereal splendor. I hold it tight and close my eyes and feel the smooth rhythm of Sea within it. I sense clear waters of pulsing tide, the captured passage of the lunar tug in the nested pearly layers.
Deep within the pearl I feel the exotic - yet somehow kindred - awareness of the placid Gold Lip nestled securely on Sea's bed, feeding on an endless bounty of plankton.