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Diving for pearls in Panama.

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After years of plucking oysters from the briny, and prising open their frilly black lips, Santana Aripe's fingers have been roughened to the point where shaking his hand is a bit like getting tactile with a Brillo pad.

Wearing his years in laughter lines and a gummy grin, it is his handshake that tells the story.

Sahara dry, these are the hands of a pearl diver.

Aripe's home is the Pearl Islands, an archipelago of castaway isles strewn across a turquoise sea off Panama's Pacific coast. Cloaked in virgin rainforest, much of the archipelago is also deserted - a characteristic not lost on location scouts for the US castaway reality TV show Survivor, which has twice set up camp here.

Steeped in lore, the 200 islets of Las Islas Perlas were once known for two things: pearls and pirates. Pearls as well as vast pots of Inca gold and silver were shipped to Europe through the privateer-infested waters.

There is more bloody swashbuckling history off these islands than you can throw a parrot at.

Among those taking refuge in the hidden coves and inlets was Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa (the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean, he also gave the Pearl Islands their name) and buccaneers Henry Morgan and Francis Drake.

Drake is buried along with his booty off the mainland coast of Puerto Bello, once the scene of flamboyant 15th-century markets, and where fortified warehouses rammed with Peruvian gold and silver were an irresistible target for pirates.

Pre-Columbus, the islands were ruled by an Indian king whose subjects' main occupation was pearl diving.

Isla del Rey, the largest island in the archipelago, is inhabited almost entirely by descendents from pearl-diving-era slaves. At its height 400 years ago, some of the world's most sought-after pearls were found here, including the legendary Peregrina, or Pilgrim Pearl.

Delivered to Spain's King Phillip II in the 16th Century, the pearl's string of illustrious owners has included an English queen and a French emperor.

It sold out to Hollywood in the late 60s, when Richard Burton bought it for Elizabeth Taylor for $37,000. In her memoirs Taylor famously recounts how her Pekingese was, literally, making a meal of the pearl before she salvaged the undamaged jewel from its mouth.

Keen to give pearl diving a go, I flew to Contadora, the island that takes its name from the houses where pearls were counted, located a short, twin-prop hop from Panama City. Scalloped by 12 powdery gold beaches and ringed by coral reefs, Contadora now lures plunderers of a different stripe: tourists.

Oh, and the occasional exiled shah in search of a hidey-hole - the Shah of Iran fled here during the revolution of 1979, you can take pictures of his former house from Playa Ejecutiva.

Much of what there is to see on Contadora itself (one church, a school, three restaurants, a nine-hole golf course) lies within walking distance of the airstrip and you can walk around the whole island in a couple of hours.

It's the islands around Contadora that offer the only real chance of finding pearls these days - as well as offering an underwater medley of rays, white-tipped reef sharks, moray eels, puffer fish, angelfish, parrotfish, dolphins and turtles.

Black-lipped pearl oysters are still found by skin divers off the intriguingly named Mogo Mogo and Casayeta. Guillermo, one half of the team that runs Coral Dreams dive centre, said, while he couldn't guarantee a pearl, he could almost certainly find me a pearl diver.

Next morning five of us head south in a boat in search of pearls.

Pelicans wheel and whine, swooping alarmingly close. As we zip past islet specks Guillermo points out Isla Saboga, where a cache of Henry Morgan's treasure was pillaged from underneath the island's colonial church, and Chapera, whose solitary house and plentiful iguanas made it ripe territory for Survivor's scouts.

Finally, we drop anchor off Isla Casayeta, with a beach shimmering in shades of aubergine and silver. Clambering over a carpet of shells, we set foot on what appears to be a one-street island, home to more dogs than people.

Half-way along we find Senor Santana Aripe, looking handsome under his Panama hat; his vest perfectly camouflaged against a powder-blue wall.

Pot-bellied and sun-worn, he has spent 60 of his 81 years on Casayeta.

Aripe explains that he started pearl diving by default when harvesting oysters for food. The milky, mercurial shells and the oyster meat were highly sought after, but pearls were a lucrative extra treasure with each stone netting an average $170 (he once sold one for $700). Back then he would find a pearl in every handful, compared with roughly one in 100 today.

"Price is dictated by colour," he says. "Grey is the most sought-after."

Aripe dives only occasionally now, using lungs alone like the pearl divers of old from Bahrain, to plumb depths of up to 15m, and no tools other than his fingers.

"Sometimes I'll go with a friend at night under a full moon," he says. "But you don't always need to dive - at low tide pearl oysters can wash up on the beach."

Leaving Casayeta we make for Mogo Mogo, another Survivor location, where we begin our oyster hunt. Snorkel masks on, Guillermo and I slip over the side of the boat, skin diving just a few feet down to where oysters cling to rocks and coral boulders.

The black-lipped oysters grow in a slightly inclined position, making them easier to pluck.

Guillermo demonstrates, a quick twist and it's off - or so it appears until I try it myself. There's a knack to the wrist action and shucking proves harder still. Back on the boat Guillermo uses an oyster knife to unhinge the shells, taking care not to sever the abductor muscle.

Eventually the fluted lips are prised apart to reveal valves bulging with white meat.

'A very happy pearl!' declares Guillermo. Scraping through the thick yellow jelly we quickly establish that this one is for eating. As is the next... and the next. After a few more attempts, we have collected enough meat for an oyster supper.

No matter that we don't find pearls. We splash around in crystalline water, swim alongside turtles and gawp at giant starfish studded with knuckles of brilliant orange.

En route back to Contadora we pitch up on a completely deserted beach, disembarking to comb a hillock of sand dumped like a perfect scoop of vanilla ice cream in the ocean.

I leave Contadora and Las Islas Perlas light on pearls, but definitely richer for the experience.

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Publication:Gulf Weekly
Date:Sep 28, 2008
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