Hundreds of Cook Islands black pearls are sold every year but very few people ever get the chance to lay eyes on the actual oysters which grow them.
But a new display at the Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre will give both locals and tourists the chance to see 15 living oysters flown down from Manihiki.
Sheryl John, manager of the Whale and Wildlife Centre, said the oyster display is a great asset to the island.
“There is so much interest surrounding the farmed pearls. Many tourists buy black pearl jewellery but few know exactly how they are grown until now,” said Sheryl John, manager of the Whale and Wildlife Centre.
She said it took months for her and husband Huw to bring the oysters to Rarotonga because they needed approval from the National Environment Service, Ministry of Marine Resources and Manihiki Island Council.
“Then we had to send a chilly bin up on a ship, which was used to bring the oysters back down on the plane,” said Huw.
The live oysters have been donated by pearl farmer Richard Browne and hung in a specially-designed aquarium brought from New Zealand, allowing visitors to get up close and personal.
Next to the tank is an explanation of how and where the oysters are farmed, provided by the Cook Islands Pearl Authority.
Sheryl said the oysters are still young and, because they haven’t been seeded, will not cultivate pearls inside them.
They are thriving in their new environment and could live for around seven years, she said.
Huw feeds fish flake to the oysters every day and replaces about 20L of seawater in the tank weekly.
They also feed on waste from the numerous small fish swimming around inside the tank.
Sheryl said they had starfish in the tank but have had to remove them, because they kept trying to open the oysters for a feed.
Another recent addition to the centre is an open-top touch pool full of sea cucumbers, blue starfish, brittle stars, fish and crabs.
People are invited to get hands-on and find out what these sea creatures feel like.
“But it’s surprising how many people don’t want to,” said Huw. “They go ‘oooooh’ but then some of them end up putting their hands in anyway.”
He added that there are no stone fish in the touch pool.
The Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre is located on the back road in Atupa, between Avarua township to and Tereora College.