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Lapi in the Isles of Love

Village boys lounge by the canoes.

Kiriwina, Trobriand Islands, PNG

The string broke and our pet Gold Lip oyster is gone, cage and all. We lift the anchor and set sail at dawn.

The Amphletts dwindle and vanish over the southern horizon. We see no land until, in mid-afternoon, the Trobriands appear low and flat on the northern horizon.

Moira anchors in the lee of a small island on the southwest extremity of a large bay nestled into Kiriwina's west coast. John Kasaipwalova lives here. I am hot to meet him, filled with the Midnight Sun, ready to talk with an islander who wrote such a beautiful poem. We motor ashore and walk up the beach towards the house.

The Trobriand IslandsThe Trobriand Islands, renamed by an anthropologist "The Isles of Love", has long enjoyed a reputation as a genetic crossroads of the Western South Pacific.

The seafaring Trobriand people were the kingpins of the prehistoric interisland trading circle of the western New Guinea islands. They are a blend of Polynesian and Melanesian and whoever else happened by.

They are an industrious lot. They carve ebony and other native hardwoods, fish, gather pearls so assiduously they annihilated their stock of pearl oysters, and have time left over to steal anything not nailed down.

"Keep a watch on your boat," Neil said, "They are not likely to hurt you but they are quick to board an untended boat and take what they want."

The nest of houses in the middle of the little island feels vacant. A few people sit around the compound but they don't seem especially interested in two white skinned strangers. I walk over to an older man and ask for Mr. John Kasaipwalova. He squints up at me and says, "Port Moresby." End of conversation.

Greatly disappointed, we walk back to the dinghy and motor back out to Moira. At sunset a canoe stops by with several young men. They have been diving for fish, would we like to trade with them? Since we caught a mackerel this morning and since we never eat reef fish for fear of Ciguatera poisoning, we ask what else they might have to trade.

One man takes out a small glass jar. It has three little pearls in it. Freddy takes them and examines them closely. One is a rich, black color. The other two are gray and look, to me, about as interesting as lead buckshot. Freddy, however, thinks they are terrific. The men want $1 Kina each for them. Freddy gives them the three Kina.

"We would like to see the oysters these come from. I want to take pictures of oysters. You come tomorrow, show me Lapi, I pay you. OK?"

They talk this over. "How much you pay?"

"Three Kina each man."

Eyebrows flick and heads nod and my guides paddle off towards John Kasaipwalova's island.

Pearl Oysters and the Isles of Love

Fishers hand egg cowries on their canoes in the hope that magic will somehow overcome poor seamanship.

There's one - attached low on the side of a silt covered dead coral head in the shallow waters of Kiriwina Bay. It is an unimpressive little oyster with the general aspect of a small black lip. But the valves are deeper. I'm not sure what species it is. My guides insist it is a Lapi.

Of the three guides, the youngest man is the best spoken. He stands on top of the big dead coral head and waves the Lapi at me, "Me little boy, oh many many Lapi here. My father he take many copra sac full up Lapi. Plenty Lapi." The four of us snorkel around the shallow rocks hunting for more Lapi. In an hour we pick up four.

"Lapi you find when you small boy, big like this?" I hold up my hands to show the size of a normal Black Lip.

"No. Lapi like this," He touches one of the small oysters. "All same small like this."

"You find pearls inside small Lapi like this?" I ask, surprised.

"Yes, plenty." He grins."Lapi come back we find plenty pearl. Now Lapi go."

Yeah, Lapi gone for good, I mumble to myself as I put the snorkel back in my mouth. Fisheries are odd. You can fish a species below a certain point and they won't recover. There are other things besides human predators to keep a population down and out. When the numbers drop below a certain point, competitors get the upper hand and presto, local extinction. Then, too, the people still pick up every Lapi they find on the off chance it might have a pearl in it.

Maybe Lapi are a different species of oyster, or at least a different variety. They kind of look like Pinctada radiata but they have a blackish nacre and, if the reports are true, are much more prone to produce pearls than either P. margaritifera or P. radiata. Possibly because of their habit of living low on the sides of dead coral heads in silty environments.

I peer into the silty water of one coral patch and see a turtle crammed in there, sound asleep. I come up, take a breath, and snorkel down again to have a closer look at it. It wakes up and sculls water in a frantic attempt to escape. I think, "Don't worry little turtle, I won't hurt you." but before it reaches the surface one of my guides nails it right between the eyes with his spear.

I'm furious, but what can I say? To them a turtle is food. Period. On the way back to Moira they butcher the young turtle on a small beach of a small island. I get one quarter of the meat as is customary when men dive together. I don't refuse. I helped kill it. It would dishonor the turtle spirit, and mine, not to eat it. I accept the meat, thinking green turtles will, according to best scientific estimates, soon be extinct.

My guides show me a pile of Lapi shell left over from the days of the great pearl hunts. It's a small mountain of small shells, the same as the species we found today. Scrubby bushes have grown up around it. A monument to foolish greed.