In the 1600’s Spanish Conquistadors sailed into unknown waters that would later become known as the Gulf of California and/or the Sea of Cortez. There they found native Yaqui and Seri Indians adorned in beautiful iridescent pearls. In their desire to take these treasures back to Europe the Spaniards forced the natives to harvest the pearls. Why did they not just dive for the oysters themselves? Well, the natives had generations of practice in these waters, they could dive deeper, holding their breath up to three minutes thus having the capability of retrieving a larger number of oysters in a shorter period of time. Within 200 years of the arrival of the Spanish ships, the oyster beds of the once bountiful area were all but destroyed.
Just shy of 20 years ago marine biology students from Tecnológico de Monterrey University (TMU) arrived in Guaymas, Mexico. They too loved the treasures of the sea and were tasked with coming up with a “senior project”. The students began experimenting with the idea of reviving the same mollusk, Rainbow Lipped Pearl Oyster, that their ancestors had loved so dearly. They were told by their professors their hypothesis was impossible. Luckily, when told something is “impossible” some rise to the challenge. By the end of the project, the students were able to find, nourish, and grow oysters that harvested small pearls. While they had been somewhat successful and submitted a business plan along with their scientific findings the students earned a “C” on their final project. This “average” grade was the best thing that could have happened to them. It fueled the now graduates to take their intellectual property and build what has become one of the most unique, thriving economic businesses in the local area.
The Pearl Farm, Perlas Del Mar De Cortez, offers daily tours which start in the very building that once housed the TMU campus. While the building itself is certainly plain the process that takes place in the floating farm just off the coast is something to be admired. In September I was lucky enough to take part in a tour. The knowledgeable, friendly guide, Fernando, whose true career is that of a self proclaimed “rockstar”, shows an obvious passion for sharing the pearl business with visitors. He provides an experience like no other ensuring tourists understand the significance The Pearl Farm has to the economy of Guaymas and the influence of gemstones around the world. He offers guests the bonus lore that the old school structure might be haunted. Fernando never actually expanded on these otherworldly happenings so the mystery remains.
The tour began with a short, informational video and then wound down a narrow walking path to a palm covered structure constructed just on the edge of the shore next to the floating oyster beds. Under this thatched structure, several generations of men from the same family spend their days tending the “crops”. This consists of removing the oysters from their floating locations, cleaning oyster shells with what appear to be meat cleavers and mending the oyster baskets. This is done on a rotational basis to create a clean environment that can best protect the oysters from prey including the sneaky octopi who constantly try to thwart the efforts of the employees.
While on the farm, oysters go through “school stages”. They begin life in “nursery school” which are large, woven, plastic grapefruit sacks filled with fishing nets which are anchored in the sea. Tiny oysters that are naturally reproduced in the area mistake these odd bundles for fan coral and cling to the sacks for dear life where they grow larger. After some time the sacks are removed from the water and the small oysters are picked off by hand. They are then placed in larger “kindergarten” baskets to continue their growth process. While in the kindergarten the small oysters continue to be removed for cleaning every 6-8 weeks growing stronger over time. Within about 1 year the healthy oysters mature enough to possibly grow a pearl. At this point they are transferred into larger “high school” basket stations where they continue cleaning and preparation for an artificial seed implant that will hopefully be the beginning of a beautiful pearl. When the oysters are ready, employees pull them from the sea and leave them in large plastic bins of seawater overnight. Since oysters can actually “see” from their many eyes lining the edge of their shell this artificial habitat provides a feeling of safety from predators. As a result, the oysters relax and open their shells. In the morning, the “scientist/doctors” arrive and stealthily slip into the opening a plastic piece that looks somewhat like a tiny doorstop to keep the oyster from closing its shell. Each oyster is removed from the water and the doctor uses a small instrument to make a tiny slit in the back of the oyster (avoiding all necessary organs) where he places an itty bitty bead along with tissue from a donor oyster. This oyster surgery must be performed while peeking through a 1.5 cm opening in less than 60 seconds or the oyster will “bleed out” and die. After surgery is complete the oysters recover and live out their existence in the “oyster condo” assuredly dreaming of the pearls they might be creating. During this 2 year stay the oysters must continue to be cleaned on a regular basis.
Summer arrives and for The Pearl Farm June is harvest time for 3-4 year old oysters. Considering their lifespan is only about four years, timing is crucial. Too late and the mollusks could die and quite literally drop their treasures into the sea before harvest. On the big day, several tables are set up along a walkway beside the floating farm. Multiple harvesting stations each complete with buckets, bins and bells are ready for action. The condos are removed from the sea one last time and an opening frenzy takes place. Lucky employees carefully split the shells open in search of beautiful gems they have tried to protect for four long years. Many oysters do not contain pearls but when one does make its appearance the lucky opener jingles the bell and there are cheers all around. The pearl is collected, cleaned, measured and stored for safekeeping. Depending on the year, The Pearl Farm harvests between 2,500 and 8,000 pearls. This is quite a range but mother nature, even with a little help, cannot be predicted.
The precious stones are extremely unique. Because they are grown four years rather than the typical two in most places around the world, Sea of Cortez pearls are often larger in size. The Pearl Farm keeps them in their natural form for mounting rather than grinding them into spherical shapes creating jewelry that is truly a work of art. These pearls do not have one distinctive color but rather come in unique combinations of all colors. Picking up colors from their surrounding these pearls may appear purplish-gold in one setting, silvery-pink in another yet have a greenish-blue tint the following day in different lighting. The iridescent nature of the unique treasures from Perlas Del Mar De Cortez are what make them some of the most valuable pearls in the world.
September 17, 2019
How do oysters communicate? With shell-phones.
Did you hear about the oyster that was in a gang? It was hired as the mussel.
What kind of jokes do oysters tell? Shell-arious ones!
INTERESTING SIDE BAR NOTE: For years I had heard that pearls begin “with a grain of sand.” WRONG! Pearls grown naturally, are actually grown around parasites that have somehow wedged themselves inside the oyster. If a parasite enters, the oyster has two choices. 1. Be killed by the parasite. In this case the parasite eats the oyster and drills its way out of the shell. Or 2. Slobber on it and kill the parasite. This results in the body of the parasite being the core that over time could become a natural pearl. Either way, no sand is involved.