As the helicopter touches down at Willie Creek just outside Broome, the turquoise waters are doing their level best to subsume the mangroves. A few hours later, there will just be the occasional pool amongst muddy flats, with the waterline a long way out.
By the standards of north-western Australia, Willie Creek is relatively close to civilisation. It is a land of ferocious red dirt and rocks that have changed so little in millions of years that they still have discernible dinosaur footprints in them.
One thing that does change, however, is the gigantic tides. And these are very popular with one particular oyster – the Pinctada maxima. The huge fluctuations wash in and wash out a fabulous banquet of plankton to filter-feed on. And the Indian Ocean here is about as clean as seawater gets. The Kimberley region is barely inhabited, and it’s far too rugged for crop farming, so there’s very little run-off or human interference.
It is the Pinctada maxima that lures in many of the humans who do make it up this way. “Each oyster is valued at AUS$10,000 [Dh27,800] over its lifetime,” says Willie Creek’s guide as she opens one up to demonstrate what goes on inside.
These oysters are not for eating – although the adductor muscle is regarded as an aphrodisiac in China and can sell for up to $650 (Dh1,835) a kilogram. Their true value comes from what can be grown inside – the biggest and most valuable pearls in the world.
Pinctada maxima pearls are the ones branded internationally as South Sea Pearls, and about 80 per cent of the world’s Pinctada maximas are found off the Australian coast. Where other oysters can produce pearls up to about 8 millimetres in diameter – maybe 10mm at a push – in Australia this is the bare minimum benchmark. The pearling companies along the remote north-western coast have long plumped for quality over quantity. And that’s how the Willie Creek showroom ends up nonchalantly displaying a pearl necklace valued at $100,000 (Dh282,500).
It’s not just about size, though. Four other key characteristics come into play – colour (the whiter, the better); surface (fewer bobbles and markings); lustre (shiny is good); and roundness (if it rolls smoothly like a marble, then it’s a winner).
The guide produces what she calls a “whale pearl”. It’s 18mm in diameter, and would be valued at between $30,000 and $40,000 (up to Dh113,000), but for a few surface imperfections and a slightly off-round shape. That takes the price tag down to a mere $8,000 (22,600).
The oyster shells get bigger as they grow older – some grow to dinner-plate size – and the bigger the shell, the bigger the pearl that is likely to grow in it.
Natural pearls are exceptionally rare – they’re found in every 10,000 to 100,000 shells depending on whom you ask – so the vast bulk of the world’s shell production is done by cultivation. This involves artificially inserting an irritant into the oyster’s gonad – Mississippi mussel shell is used at Willie Creek because it is five times more dense than Pinctada maxima shell and thus shows up under X-ray.
The oyster then tries to soothe the irritation by producing nacre – better known as mother-of-pearl. It’s not too dissimilar a process to the way humans produce tears to fight irritants in the eye, but the nacre builds and solidifies over time around the irritant.
Here again, the tides come into play. They repeatedly flip the oyster shells, meaning the build-up of nacre is consistent on all sides to give it a more spherical shape. But it’s a two-year process, and the first pearls produced by the younger oysters are at the smaller end of the scale.
So there are second, third and fourth attempts. Each time the pearl is taken out, a new irritant the same size as the removed pearl is added. The pearls removed get bigger with every seeding, but the success rate drops dramatically.
“The first time, we have an 85 per cent success rate in producing a pearl,” says the guide. “The second time it’s 55 per cent, the third time 35 per cent and the fourth only 5 per cent.” With the really big pearls only possible the fourth time around, those odds explain why the prices for them ramp up so much.
The talk takes place on the land, but the action takes place in the water. A boat heads out to where the oysters hang out, and the skipper tugs something out of the water. It turns out to be a metal panel – a little like a toasting rack – that the oysters are kept in.
The ones on show are rather hairy – they’ve been coated with fireweed, which stings the oyster hinge like chilli would human lips. It’s one of the many things that have to be cleaned off. Throughout the two-year cycle, boat crews strip the hair, chip off the barnacles and rub salt into the shells to protect them from invasive eroding sponges. Most of the cost in farming oysters comes from cleaning them like this – the VIPs get quite the pampering treatment.
Before the skipper lowers the panel back into the water, he takes a good look around. Nigel, a 4.5-metre saltwater crocodile, inhabits these parts. And you don’t want to be putting your hands in the water while he’s around.
“Divers are happy enough to get in the water with sharks,” the skipper explains. “But not crocs.”
Diving takes place on pearl farms, largely on a maintenance level, but historically pearl divers haven’t been looking for pearls. They’ve been looking for pearl shells. In fact, it wasn’t even legal to grow cultured pearls in Australia until 1949.
The resort town of Broome is now the centre of Australia’s pearling industry. A highly distinctive place ridiculously far from any decent-sized city, Broome is almost entirely constructed from corrugated metal. That’s partly because it’s easier to replace if a cyclone rips through, and partly because it’s a lot cheaper than bricks to transport more than 2,000km from Perth.
Broome is where the tropics and the desert somehow intermingle, and it has piggybacked on the huge Cable Beach to become an unlikely beach holiday spot with several twists. One of these is that it is the hub for Australia’s pearling industry – and that has changed over time. Now, growing pearls is the big money-spinner – but Broome was built on buttons.
Until plastics came in during the 1950s and utterly savaged the pearl-shell market, most suit and shirt buttons were made of mother-of-pearl. And it was so valuable that people would face all manner of danger to get at it.
The two pearl luggers – the DMcD and Sam Male – in central Broome are the last two old-style boats from a once-proud fleet numbering more than 400. They’re now museum pieces, and the grim tales of life aboard them are told in the neighbouring tenders store.
Here, walls are covered in photographs, and clunky-looking equipment stacks up around the sides. Most eye-catching, though, are the suits. Made of vulcanised rubber, they would regularly dwarf the slightly-built Asian divers, who would also have to contend with two layers of woollen clothing underneath and enormous lead-lined boots.
It would take an hour to get into it all, and that’s with assistance from two other crew members. Once fully togged up, and with the airtight helmet screwed in place, they would weigh up to 220kg. Too heavy, in other words, for the divers to swim back under their own steam.
They were terrifyingly reliant on the attendants at the other end of their rope. They had to communicate via a Morse code-esque system of tugs on the rope, and would spend the bulk of the daylight hours underwater, grabbing oyster shells from the ocean bed.
There wasn’t an unlimited air supply – divers had to pull on the rope to get more air pumped down through the air hose. It required enormous levels of trust, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for the deckhands to be slacking off, having a sandwich or just chatting. Often they’d not pump the air until the very last second. And occasionally, festering resentments could lead to the deckhands not pumping any air down at all. A death could always be written off as a tragic accident.
There were an awful lot of deaths by other means, too. Shark attacks, highly venomous sea snake bites, jellyfish stings and migrating humpback whales blundering through and cutting off the air pipe were bad. Cyclones were worse. But decompression sickness (also known as the bends) through ascending too rapidly was remorseless.
A walk through Broome’s sprawling Japanese and Chinese cemeteries show just how many came here for the pearl-shell riches – and met a nasty end in the Indian Ocean.
Growing cultured pearls isn’t quite as dangerous as diving for pearl shells, and the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm – a juddery drive up a red-dirt road to near the top of the Dampier Peninsula – is where the industry took an important turn.
It was the first cultured-pearling operation in the world set up without Japanese input – Lyndon Brown worked out the closely guarded secret of how to inject the irritant into the oyster while making deliveries to a Japanese-run farm.
The infinity pool, restaurant and safari tent indicate that Cygnet Bay is now cultivating tourists as well as pearls. But in the sheds near the waterfront, it’s clear that the devotion to discovering technology continues apace.
Inside are several tanks that are part of the mission to protect Australia’s oysters from shell-health problems that are still yet to be properly diagnosed. Something – probably a bacteria – is affecting shells and making it difficult for oysters to feed. So the purpose of Cygnet Bay’s hatchery is to breed male and female oysters that are resistant to the problem.
Deliberately breeding in favourable characteristics is a new era for oyster farming. Cultivating pearls is one thing; creating oysters that will cultivate them better is another. And selecting individual oysters rather than bunging several into a tank and hoping for the best is drilling things down to a new level. These days, it’s brains rather than bravery that is required to maximise the money from the Pinctada maxima.
Read this and more travel stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, September 29.
Source: art & life