We’re speeding over impossibly turquoise waters off Broome, in Western Australia, when we see it: a convoy of six humpback whales migrating north from Antarctica. As skipper Mic slows the engines, a 10-meter-long female humpback swims close enough for us to feel the salt spray as she exhales and to see her white belly through the clear, clean water.
But this is no whale-watching cruise.
I’m here for an event seldom seen by visitors to the Kimberley: the annual pearl harvest.
This part of Australia is a world away from the more populous east coast, a world defined by two seasons: ‘the Dry’ (May to October) when the population of Broome, its main town, triples to about 45,000; and ‘the Wet’ (November to April) when tropical cyclones and flooding rains (the record is 476 mm in 24 hours) keep most tourists away.
Underneath these tourist swells, however, is a constant: Broome’s pearling industry.
COMING OUT OF ITS SHELL
Early European settlers in the region, inspired by coastal indigenous Australians who wore and traded large oyster shells for thousands of years, collected shells for the mother-of-pearl inside. By the early 1900s Broome was supplying 80 percent of the world’s mother-of-pearl, primarily used for making buttons.
Those were dark days for Broome, however, when Aboriginal, Japanese and Chinese workers were used as virtual slave labor, diving deep (particularly after hard-hat diving suits were invented) and dying young.
When plastics killed the mother-of-pearl industry in the 1950s, Broome turned to farming pearls using a technique developed by Japanese inventor Kokichi Mikimoto, who is widely credited with creating the first cultured pearls, in 1893.
Walk down the main street of Broome any day of the week now and you’ll see firsthand the importance of pearls, and pearling, to this small town. Shop windows glimmer with South Sea Pearl jewelry, you can step aboard a historic pearl lugger or do a pearl farm tour, and there’s even a Pearl Information Centre inside the local tourist office.
One of the names you’ll see is Willie Creek Pearls, an award-winning family business that has been farming pearls for more than 20 years—on a small scale, for tourism.
In 2014, however, Willie Creek Pearls was granted a commercial pearl license, the first time in two decades a new player had arrived on the competitive commercial pearling scene. (There are just 17 pearling licenses in Western Australia and only four other pearling operators: Paspaley, Autore, Maxima Pearling Company and Cygnet Bay Pearls.)
A couple of months ago, in late 2016, Willie Creek Pearls had its first commercial harvest, an event usually off-limits to tourists, and I was able to join a small group of travel writers invited to see it.
PEARLS OF WISDOM
But first, a lesson in all things pearling at Willie Creek Pearl Farm, a 40-minute drive north of Broome along sealed and unsealed roads (‘We call it the Kimberley massage,’ says our driver).
We join the first half of a tour led by guide Stuart Hartigan in an open-sided gazebo beside Willie Creek, where signs warn visitors to beware of falling coconuts—and saltwater crocodiles.
It all starts with the largest oyster in the world, Pinctada maxima, says Hartigan, holding up one the size of a dinner plate. Found predominately along the Kimberley Coast, Pinctada oysters produce mostly white South Sea Pearls (about 5 percent of its pearls are gold-rimmed; black pearls aren’t commonly farmed in Australia).
Most of the pearls sold in the world are freshwater pearls farmed in China. Cultivated saltwater pearls, by contrast, are less common—and more valuable.
In nature, a pearl is an anomaly. Left to its own devices, only one in 5,000 oysters will produce a pearl. It happens when an irritant such as a grain of sand damages the oyster’s fleshy interior. This causes the oyster to heal itself with layer after layer of nacre, a sort of pearly scar tissue and the same substance that coats the inside of an oyster shell (pearlers call it ‘MOP;’ we call it mother-of-pearl).
When farmed, the odds improve considerably. At the risk of oversimplifying an incredibly complex process, wild oyster shells are gathered by divers from the sea floor and coaxed into growing pearls by the implanting of a spherical ‘seed’ of mussel shell.
It’s a small operation, taking less than two minutes, performed with surgical precision by a skilled technician who has trained for many years, including five years in marine biology.
The shell is then allowed to close and placed in a panel with other shells which is then rested on the sea floor and turned regularly before being hung from a surface line in the sea, where it is periodically cleaned of marine growth and monitored by ‘farm crews’ until, two years later, a pearl is ready for harvest.
Pinctada oysters can live for up to 40 years and produce three or four pearls in their lifetime, the pearls getting larger and more valuable with age, ranging from about AUD $500 to tens of thousands of dollars depending on their luster, size, shape, color and complexion (pearling’s five ‘virtues’).
GETTING TO WORK
The pearl harvest usually takes place over a single week during the dry season, the exact timing dependent on a host of factors such as lunar cycles and ocean temperatures. It’s sheer luck that my colleagues and I happen to be in Broome at the right time.
After the tour, we’re ushered onto a waiting speedboat for the 40-minute trip to the Trident Aurora pearling vessel, anchored 10 nautical miles offshore.
It’s a rough ride. The whales en route make up for it and I manage to sidestep seasickness, but I’m glad when we finally pull alongside the mother ship.
Getting aboard isn’t easy, however. Tied to the larger vessel, our small boat bucks violently in the swell and it takes three of the Trident’s crew members and a few well-timed leaps to get us all safely aboard, where we meet Paul Birch, Willie Creek’s general manager of operations, who shows us around.
First stop: the main deck, which is a hive of quiet, focused activity.
The ship employs 29 people on a two-week work cycle (10 days on, four days shore leave) and they’re about halfway through the harvest.
While we’re getting our sea legs, small open boats pull alongside, delivering panels of oysters from the long lines on the surrounding lease, which is about two nautical miles square. Divers in wetsuits come and go.
At the stern, men and women stand at waist-high tables removing oyster shells from panels and placing them into racks so they can be wedged open for technicians (‘techs’) to inspect the pearls inside.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Our next stop is where the magic happens, where two years of hard work come to fruition, or not.
In a well-lit, air-conditioned room, three techs do the delicate work of checking shell after shell to see if the pearls inside are ready.
One of the techs is Hiro Akune, who has 30 years of experience and started in the industry as a hard-hat diver. As we peer over his shoulder, he uses what looks like a dentist’s tool to reach inside an oyster shell, remove the pearl and pop it into a plastic yellow container. That’s a good one, Birch says.
Akune then re-seeds the shell, selecting a sphere of mussel shell of the right size from a tray in front of him, before returning the shell to a tub at his feet. (If the pearl doesn’t meet certain specifications, the shell is taken to another part of the ship where its mother-of-pearl and pearl meat are processed for sale.)
In a perfect world, every oyster shell would produce a pearl. But the best a pearl farm can hope for is a high number of pearls ‘with good virtues,’ says Birch (the exact number of pearls harvested each year is a closely guarded secret).
Our last stop is the ship’s bridge, at the top of a steep flight of metal stairs. There we meet Rob Banfield, co-owner of Willie Creek Pearls and part of Broome’s Banfield pearling dynasty, who shows us the finished product.
Watching Banfield unlock the Pelican case containing the pearls harvested so far this week is like a scene from a heist movie.
Inside are a dozen zip-lock bags containing hundreds of freshly harvested pearls. Birch empties one bag into a plastic bowl and we’re allowed to run our fingers through them, aware of his and Banfield’s eagle eyes on us lest a stray pearl fall on the floor or (God forbid) into someone’s pocket.
‘It’s incredible that something so individual and so beautiful can come from such a harsh environment, with a helping hand from mankind,’ says Birch. ‘The challenge is always to grow the perfect pearl.’
Too soon, the pearls return to their locked case and we climb back onto the speedboat and head back to the mainland. The return trip is another marine-life extravaganza—we see dolphins, turtles, sea snakes and more humpback whales—that ends at Broome’s famous Cable Beach, 22 km of white sand as dazzling as a Willie Creek pearl.
Photos: Willie Creek Pearls and Louise Southerden
For more information on pearl farm tours, see williecreekpearls