Pearl Farm

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Today was going to be an excursion. I had absolutely no idea this place even existed and I really haven't seen much talk about it on the cruise boards. However, c-leg on the boards brought the name of this place up when I was asking what else I should do (on a cruise day) and that was basically the only time I had heard about it that I can remember.

 

So I had emailed them prior to leaving on this trip and we were trying to set up a day and Isabel immediately responded and answered all of my questions I had thrown at her. She was delightful and easy to talk to. There was to be high winds over the weekend that we were coming in and I was trying to fit this place in on Monday (because I already had a calendar going of places I had booked) and she explained that the tour was completely dependent on the weather and conditions and  wanted it later in the week to be on the safe side. I was rearranging my schedule to fit this in and we didn't really make a choice prior to flying into Cozumel. However, I emailed Isabel mid-week, after arriving in Cozumel, asking if Friday would work for them and she immediately told me YES!

So....WE'RE GOING TO THE PEARL FARM!

We were told to meet at the Puerto de Abrigo marina at 10am. I was happy to know that it wasn't no 7 or 8am in the morning and I wouldn't feel rushed and had plenty of time to get there. Their boat was called La Ostra (which means Oyster in Spanish) and the price for this excursion was $110/adult and $85/child 12 and under. Thank goodness Sakari was still 12 for another week! Benefits! The tour is supposed to be from 10am-4pm, so 6 hours long. The boat ride to the north side of Cozumel is around 45 minutes (but I believe this is because there is a "pit stop" included. 

We headed to the marina early (or course, because I'm always punctual). The lighthouse is a dead giveaway that you are there. 

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There weren't many people here. There was a security guard and maybe 2 people walking around. Also, there were a few people getting their boats ready but other than that, the place was dead. 

We parked under a tree in the shade because it was super hot outside. 

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Isabel messaged me asking if we were there yet and I told her yes. She said they were on their way and would let me know when they arrive. 

Since we were there early and had been sitting for awhile, I had to use the restroom. Actually, my stomach was turning again...oh no! Not this again! I got out of the car and went up to the guard to ask where the restroom was and he pointed all the way over to the other side of the marina. Eeek! I got in the car and headed back down the street and out onto the main street and then to the other side. Geesh, this was going to take up some time and I hoped that she wouldn't pull up while we were gone. 

I got out and searched the property for the bano's. I stopped to ask someone and they pointed really far away. It was already a long walk for me because the parking lot was all the way around all the buildings along the water. I turned to follow his directions and right there in front of me were the restrooms.  ???  I have no clue why he told me so far away. I made it to the bano and .... it was a false alarm. Thank goodness. 

Headed back to the car and drove back to the other side of the marina where she said she was now pulling in. We gathered our things and headed down the walkway at the marina to locate La Ostra. 

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Now I really never paid attention to what was on their website or what this excursion was all about other than it was a Pearl Farm. I guess I never realized there was even such a thing and we are always up for new adventures. So, I was going in blind. I had visions in my head but I didn't have a clue what we were doing. 

The boat pulled up and we got in. The boat was very small and looked older with only a few rows of seats. Sakari was in the front half seat, mi esposo and I were in the second row, and the crew was in the third row, which was Isabel, which was giving the tour and a helper (I believe for cooking). Then there was the captain of the boat.  They definitely can't take many people in this boat on an excursion so I guess if you ever went, it would be a small group, which would be good. Talk about small groups...today would be JUST US!!!  How wonderful was that!

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It was time to pull out and they informed us it is a pretty long boat ride to their farm. The time 10am and we were on the move. 

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We were passing Buccanos! Sakari said "I wonder if Sir Pedro San Miguel will know it's us and follow us to the Pearl farm."

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A little history about the Pearl Farm (according to their webpage and was also told to us by Isabel as well). 

The Pearl Farm and Tour is owned and operated by the family and we will be your hosts and guide you personally during your visit.

The Farm remains pristine due to its location that was declared a natural protected area since 2012.

The Cozumel Pearl Farm is the only active pearl farm in the Caribbean and is the best kept secret of the island. During the tour you will walk the facilities of the farm and find out how we cultivate our pearls and the patience needed for the long cultivation process and see some of the island's first farmed pearls.

Once we have learned all about the cultivation process of pearls we will take you to snorkel the oysters hatchery, there you will see a life-size Virgen de Guadalupe underwater statue, our first artificial reef  and some of the most beautiful natural reef formations while you try the ultimate snorkel experience... speed snorkeling!!!!

We finalize our water activity with a stop at our amazing sand bank, which will blow your mind.

Meanwhile Jose will prepare our famous grilled pineapple -cheese hamburger, that will be awaiting you with cold beer at our palapa.

The rest of the tour time is left for relaxing on the beach or in a hammock, walking along the beach or swim in these amazing Caribbean turquoise waters and enjoy paradise!!!!

Includes:

• Guide, boat ride, snorkel gear, bottled water, soft drinks, beers and lunch

• Maximum 8 visitors per tour

We pulled up to a shipwreck called Catch the Wave. The story about it:

This ship ran aground in 2012 during a storm. I guess the boat was left in port and it broke free and ran aground in this shallow area and they were unable to recover it. I believe she said it was a snorkeling tour or party boat. It sat there eroding from the salt water and snorkelers and divers would come here after that to explore. However, since it has rusted so bad now, they no longer allow anyone there because of safety reasons. 

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I don't know what it is about these type of shipwrecks, but I just love taking pictures of them. The only other one I can think of that we were by at a beach was in Grand Turk. It just fascinated me with the history and the colors the erosion causes on the ship. It's so pretty in a morbid kinda way I guess. 

Then we were off and headed to the Pearl Farm. Then all of a sudden I hear a gasp and the hubby grabbed his head like he had been hit by an object...only I'm sure his object hit someone behind him instead. His hat flew off as we were speeding along. HAHAHA! So, Isabel said "no worries, we can do a search and recovery!" Now Sakari has done a search and recovery class in her scuba class so she was the perfect candidate for the job!

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Moving along...as I daydreamed about what we were doing today and the different visions in my head brought me to a peaceful place, I glanced over to the shoreline and seen this beautiful beach with some palapa's and said to mi esposo "Wow, look at that place! Wouldn't it be nice to be there!" and about then the boat turned in that direction and we were headed there. Wait, what? Would this be a stop for us? Could this be the beautiful beach that we would get to spend some time at? I knew that it stated that we would get to hang out at a beach and have lunch and I was really hoping this would be the place. (My starving belly would be hoping the same). 

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As we pulled up, Isabel told us to grab what we needed and bring to shore. Of course we grabbed everything because I had no idea what we were doing here and what we would actually need. Where we swimming here? Just eating here? My priority is always the camera's so I grabbed the bag with that and the masks in it and the hubby grabbed the bag with the towels. We hoped off the boat, lifted our bags, and walked through the water to the shore. It was like Gilligan's Island. We had just came across a primitive little island with abandoned shelters and no one else around...only we still had access to a boat to leave when we wanted...I would soon discover I never wanted to leave!

Taking a look at this gorgeous place...I started furiously snapping pictures of everything. It was "decorated" so cute.

Isabel led us over to the large palapa where we were able to sit at a table and grab a cold one. They had a cooler full of drinks and it really hit the spot! We sat around and talked and got to know each other and she is such a lovely person. We learned that she lived on the mainland of Mexico and traveled back and forth to Cozumel to the pearl farm. She used to live here, but ended up moving back to Mexico, where the rest of her family resides, except for her brother, which lives in San Miguel, in the city where we were staying, and is an engineer. Her father had to move back, otherwise they were going to take his land there.

Isabel studied marine biology around the world and is very passionate about the pearl farm, which is her family business started by her father back in 2001, who was by trade a civil engineer.

The palapa and some of the surroundings were a little worn and missing some of the roof and we would learn that the last hurricane (which I don't believe she mentioned what the name of the last one was, but when I look it up, it might be Delta?) had torn things up a bit and with COVID and not many people coming to visit, they have not been able to repair the place or replace missing and torn up items, which you will see during "class". 

But, either way, roof or no roof, this place is gorgeous!

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There were stacks of conch shells in piles with names written all over them...memories from people coming to visit the farm. Some were very faint and you could tell they had been there awhile...a memory of a time when people were visiting the island often and there were no restrictions. Others were freshly marked and a sign of hope that the island would soon get back to normal and have visitors again while boosting the economy. 

Now normally I would be the first to hit the crystal clear water on such a hot day but I was perfectly happy just sitting around talking to Isabel and taking in the scenery. 

After awhile, she said we were going to move over to a different location and have a "class" on the pearl farm. I really didn't know if this meant we were going by boat or by foot. It ended up being by foot. We walked in the sand and between the palms and greenery and headed toward our new location. Of course, I'm always last because walking in very soft sand is very hard for me these days since my foot doesn't bend and is very stiff and painful. Along the way there was a huge eagle nest. I believe Isabel said they used to be there every year but hasn't seen any recently. 

It was quite the walk for me and Sakari usually tries to stay back with me so I have someone to walk with. The hubby was way ahead talking to Isabel about the area.

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Once we arrived to the "class" area, it was another huge palapa with chairs and posters on a stand. 

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Isabel started by telling us the history of the pearl farm. In 2001 her father decided that civil engineering and large-scale construction projects wasn't his hopes and dreams. He started focusing on pearl cultivation and found this beautiful piece of land on the water where he worked with the Mexican government to obtain permission to use the land for pearl cultivation. As Isabel had been dedicating her time to her studies as a Marine Biologist, she agreed to help her father with his new endeavor. She had studied in various places in the world, some shared their cultivation process and others would keep it a secret. She would put this knowledge to work for her family business. 

Things were going smoothly and then hurricane Wilma struck in 2005 and completely wiped out their pearl farm. All of the oysters in the water were also completely gone. They thought about giving up on pearl farming but ultimately decided to rebuild and use their experience with the hurricane to build a farm that would withstand another hurricane. They also bought and anchored a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Virgin Mary) to the sea floor at the farm to help protect it. She states they dive out to it and pray to keep the farm safe all the time. 

Our first lesson was about the various types and colors of pearls. Cozumel pearls are VERY small and range about 5mm in size.  Akoya pearls are white and around 7mm in size. Cortez pearls are bluish in color an 9mm. Tahitian (Fiji) Black pearls (drool) are around 10mm in size. Then the beautiful South Sea Pearl (Australia)  are pinkish and a whopping 13mm.

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As you can tell in the next picture, you can see the destruction of the hurricane and how their slides, that were once hanging up and attached to the thatched roof, are torn up on the edges and very light in color. They were able to find the slides, but they are in bad shape and Isabel said they were getting new ones made. 

So, more history. The pear farm is ONLY accessible by water. This creates a big challenge in getting not only to and from the farm but bringing in items here needed to cultivate and of course taking things off the farm as well. 

In the picture, you'll see what the pearl farm laboratory used to look like (a house) and it is completely different now.

An overview look at the pearl farm: 

Next up was the Quality of the pearls. Several characteristics factor into the quality such as: Luster, Shape, Surface, Size and Color. 

Notice the oblong shape of the pearl in the second picture down. Those are considered bad quality but as Isabel mentioned, these make beautiful tear drop earrings and I have to agree. Pretty neat. 

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The devastation of Hurricane Wilma: October 20th, 2005 was the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic to date that destroyed all of their facilities on land and in the sea.

This hurricane lasted for more than 50 hours with winds over 186mph (or 300 km)

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Even with everything lost, they decided to push on and rebuild with new techniques that would resist another hurricane if it came. 

They built their facility up high and with different material. 

Isabel told us about her dad having a favorite pair of crocs and they took them and attached them to a pair of skateboards to better walk on something...I don't remember what for some reason.

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They decided to go with a different material for the oyster farm in the water. The new anchoring system method would withstand the roughness and harsh conditions of the sea better and also keep predators out. They had some issues with baby King Crabs getting inside the old cages and when they grew, they would feast on the oysters. 

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Making new anchoring systems and purchasing Our lady Guadalupe to be erected in the ocean floor. 

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Installing the new system and her family hard at work.

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Our lady Guadalupe was made with a special concrete which would help restore and serve as part of a natural reef. 

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During class, I look down at Sakari's leg and spotted this........

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Once class was over, it was time to go to the place where they cultivate the pearls. Now once again, I really didn't know what to expect. Were we getting on the boat and going to the farm? Would this be like a giant warehouse with all this technology and machines breaking open oysters and taking the pearls out and dropping them into buckets? I really didn't know. 

We were told to follow Isabel and we'd head into the facility. Ok, so this meant that it was located here on the land. 

As we walked along, Isabel showed us the big black containers that she said we would notice sitting on the roofs of buildings around Cozumel and it was for water. We also noticed some huge concrete things that she said ended up being washing ashore during the hurricane and they still sit there today because they are so heavy and can't be moved. I believe they were used as anchoring prior to the hurricane. There were various oyster baskets in different shapes and material around the place, which showed how they have changed their design over the years to improve the farm. 

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We walked along and came to a small building that was raised up. Wait, is this the lab where they cultivate the pearls? It sure was. Of course nothing like I had pictured in my head.

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We went inside where there was a big table and stuff sitting all over. This was their lab. This is where they worked on the pearls. This was where they made the magic happen. It was small, dark, and very very hot! As I looked around I kept wondering how a place like this could ever withstand a hurricane. I mean it was made out of wood and had windows and I guess I pictured something made of concrete or something. 

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We sat down at the table and Isabel had lined up different oysters to show us the difference in sizing. She had her utensils laid out that they use to cultivate the pearls, a petri dish of pearls and a laminated page to show us what it looks like inside of an oyster.

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I have seen many oysters while snorkeling all over the Caribbean and they always look so ugly and covered with stuff and "stringy" but then when you see the inside of an oyster it's just so beautiful and smooth and shiny. (Of course I already knew this, but just needed to remind myself of just how pretty they really are)

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Just look at the difference in sizing! It's so weird how Cozumel has such small oysters!

 

 

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The Atlantic Pearl Oyster (called the Pinctada radiata) was almost extinct before. Isabel showed us the different sizes and shapes they would find in the oysters. 

She also had one in a box with some other pearls that was the least of the least sought after pearl...the oblong tear looking pearl that wasn't worth much but would make a good pair of teardrop earrings. I actually liked it...just because it was different. 

 

 

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Some of the jewelry they made out of the pearls were passed around. They were very pretty. I totally expected it to then become a sales tactic at that point and trying to get us to purchase something. But, she never mentioned anything about buying their items nor did she even give us a cost. I was kinda interested in finding out how much they sold these beauty's for and once I looked it up on their website, I found my answer. Pretty expensive. But, after seeing what all they go through to get just one small pearl, I completely understand.

 

I remember as a kid, going to Weeki Wachee in Florida and they had mermaids in large tanks and you would pay them to dive down and grab you an oyster and bring it up. You would then take it over to a table where they would open it for you and you would get to see your pearl. You then had the option to have it made into some type of jewelry and I choose to have mine put in a ring. I wore the heck out of that thing and eventually I lost the pearl out of it and the ring was discarded. But thinking back, I had no idea that a process like here in the Caribbean would take so much to get a pearl. I'm now wondering were these pearls at Weeki Wachee staged? Were they real? Did they just get a bunch of oysters and place pearls (maybe fake I don't know) in them and use them over and over again? I'm just so unsure about that entire experience now that I have had a lesson in pearls. 

 

 

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They also started making other jewelry without the pearls to supplement some income.

 

 

Isabel focused most of the class time in the lab on cultivating the pearl. It was like a delicate operation, going in a certain way, only so far, with a special tool. It just blew my mind the process for just one pearl!

 

 

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Isabel spoke highly of a person in Japan, Mikimoto Kokichi, that created a technique in the early 1890's that was used to cultivate the pearls. It it used among pearl farmers to this day. He was the first to create the cultured pearl and successfully starting the pearl industry. He was an entrepreneur and created a luxury pearl company and also had other brands. He was named one of the greatest Japanese inventors and one of the best financial leaders of the 20th century. He died at the age of 96.

This process included seeding the oysters and took years to accomplish and creating a completely spherical pearl that was hard to distinguish between his cultivated pearl and the highest quality of a natural pearl. You must insert a piece of oyster membrane with a nucleus into the oysters body, causing the tissue to form a pearl sack. The sack produces nacre that coats the nucleus and creates a pearl. Irritants, which could even be a piece of sand, that becomes trapped in the mollusk, can produce a pearl. The mollusk will try to protect itself and secretes the substances which then grows over time producing the pearl. 

Oysters will only allow their shells to be opened a few centimeters, otherwise they will reject the nucleus. You must use certain exacting tool and make small incisions. 

So how long does it take? The oysters can be raised for years (3) before they are mature enough to implant. Once they are implanted it could take another 18 months to 3 years after that. This is a very LONG process! For natural pearls, it is very rare to find pearls in oysters and you could open hundreds of oysters before finding one wild pearl. Imagine that!

Now Isabel touched base on all of this information. Of course my dementia has probably kicked in a bit and I may or may not have gotten it right, but I looked up the process online and it all sounds familiar so hopefully I'm somewhat right about this process. 

Isabel showed us a magnified picture of the layers they have to go into and it has to be in the perfect location for it to work. 

 

 

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The white board had drawings and mad calculations that only a scientist could read...or marine biologist I suppose. But then again it started to look like something out of a playbook for football. My mind was starting to wander. 

 

 

It was extremely hot in here. I didn't feel much of a breeze. I was ready for this portion to be over with. Isabel had made her point about what an extremely long process it was to get one pearl out of an oyster and everything that comes along with it. I applaud her and her family for sticking with it, even after the devastation of loosing it all during the hurricane. I can't imagine nor would I have the patience for any of this. She is amazing!

 

 

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