I’m whisking you back to Broome in North West Australia today, and we’re going to visit a remote pearl farm, where the sea and the sky merge in the most perfect blues you ever will see.
I think every girl needs a pearl, don’t you? It’s a bit like a diamond being a girl’s best friend – well, I reckon a pearl is more of a guardian figure. They are so pure, and look incredibly honest, almost a little other worldly. Wait until you hear the process involved in growing and producing a pearl – it will make you treasure any you already own, that’s for sure!
Anyway, here we are back on tour in Broome. Willie Creek here we come! Let’s go!
Oh and don’t forget your hat!
A little history
“The township of Broome is actually divided in half by the airport”, says our guide as we speed through the pindan to Willie Creek Pearl farm on a road which is so bumpy it will surely make my fillings fall out. “Broome was gazetted in 1889 and in 1988 Cable Beach Club was built, and Broome’s tourism just grew from there,” he continues.
“The Fat Years of 1889 to 1891 saw the price of mother of pearl shell escalate to new highs and established Broome as a port often referred to as the Queen City of the North. By 1898, Broome was the principal cargo port for north Western Australia and by the First World War; the Port of Broome was second only to Fremantle. “Broome Visitor’s Centre
We have turned off the Broome Highway onto The Cape Leveque road heading towards Dampier. There’s a sign telling us that Broome’s nearest neighbour is Derby 212 kms away and Port Headland is a whopping 577 kms away. It brings home to me how remote Broome is, and suddenly I feel as if we’re on an island, a tropical island, castaway from all the trappings of modern civilisation like traffic jams, superstores, suits and long to- do lists, for we have entered Broome time which as anyone will tell you is notoriously slow.
“Broome is considered a semi-arid area,” our guide explains as our tour bus rattles on along the brick red road. “We get about 540mm of rain per year on a normal year. This year, during the wet season November to April, we only had 370mm of rain, but in May we had 288mm in two days and in June 140mm. Sometimes this road can be like a river, but even when water is running awe manage to navigate it by heading for the high ground to the sides.”
I look at the fairly steep sides and think ‘Impressive.’
“One comment on Trip Advisor after the rains,” continues our guide, “Was that the bus ride was an adventure in itself, and it was – especially when the back of the bus overtook the front!” He laughs, and I realise that he has seen this road during good, bad and worse times.
Butterflies and Blue Tongue Lizards
“Because of the rain, the pindan is looking really lush,” our guide notes, and it is – all green and flowering. “This season we’ve had two flowerings due to the abundance of rain. But I think we’re in for an early wet season because the butterflies and the blue tongue lizards are coming out already, which is indicative of an early ‘wet’.
Fast Fact : ‘Pindan’ applies both to the soil and the vegetation. Structurally it is a low and open woodland of scattered trees, dominated by wattles with eucalypts and tall shrubs. The understorey contains grasses.
Fly or drive to Broome?
“75% of visitors fly and 25% drive to Broome,” explains our guide.
Hmm, although a road trip sounds appealing I think the long periods of long and probably straight monotony would make my green eyes glaze over and I’m glad that we’ve arrived on a comfortable Qantas Boeing 737 -800, a short two and a bit hour flight from Perth with a very nice lunch and a couple of drinks thrown in. (Disclaimer: My flight was sponsored by Qantas)
For more about Broome … 15 Amazing Things to do in Broome, Western Australia
Broome and The Pearling Industry
There are apparently two different periods of note in the pearling industry in Broome. The original industry was all about the Mother of Pearl Shell, which a hundred years ago was used for many different things in Europe including buttons. Later the industry became more about the pearl itself, and thousands of shells had to opened to find the perfect pearl.
“Early pioneers were looking for mineral wealth but they noticed that the indigenous Aborigines wore pearl shells around their middles. They asked where they got them from, and the Aborigines replied that they just picked them up from the beach when the tide was low,” our guide tells us.
“In the late 1870’s Broome was a little shanty town on the beach at Roebuck Bay and explorers first came looking for gold, but soon realised it was cattle country. In 1881 pearls were discovered, and later it was gazetted as a town and named after the then Governor of WA.”
In days gone by pearling was a dangerous industry to get into, and the deep diving claimed many lives. By the early 1900’s there were 400 luggers based in Broome, and the Japanese were considered to be by far the best divers.
The boat masters were generally English, and the crews were multicultural, so a multicultural society formed in Broome which is evident today with Chinatown being a draw card, and a profusion of restaurants offer an array of different foods.
Then came the war.
“Broome was attacked several times by the Japanese, so the Australian military interned the Japanese luggers living in Broome and by doing so all but destroyed the pearling industry as a result. After the war they were released and by the 1950’s and 1960’s the Mother of Pearl shell industry was once again booming,” our guide tells us.
At this point I can no longer take notes … As I type up my notes now the scrawl on my notepad is practially illegible, and I remember how bumpy the middle section of the road to the pearl farm actually was. I can feel the bus slipping and skating on the loose sand and our guide seemed to be driving a skittish thoroughbred galloping on ice.
The road to Willie Creek Pearls
We drive along a road that apparently can be completely submerged by the king tide in a few hours time, so we have to leave the pearl farm before the tide comes in.
“The very large tides, particularly the king tides are actually great for pearl farming,” says our guide. “The king tides occur due to the equinox when the sun moves from the northern to southern hemisphere. Today between 5.15am and 11.15am there will be a king tide of about 8.8 metres. It’s coming in at about 25 – 30km per hour and rises constantly every minute.”
I look and can see it pouring into the estuary as we gaze out of the bus.
“The road may well be swamped on our return,” says our guide. A small part of me giggles and hopes everyone is wearing swimmers.
I’m listening but my bones are being shaken. Suddenly a kingfisher flashes across our path in a bright flash of blue and we come out of the pindan onto a flat, open clay pan where the road is not bumpy but smooth as a skating rink.
My fillings settle down, and my brain realigns.
Coarse grass circumferences the area; there are paper bark trees to our right and a sand hill which now discreetly hides the vast blue Indian Ocean ahead of us.
“Early Explorers found that the Aborigines who lived here were fit and tall, and their good health was attributed to a native fruit which grow locally, called the Gabinge, a fibrous fruit which has the vitamin C content of 50 oranges,” explains our guide. “It’s closest relative is the Kakadu plum.”
“You can camp at the Pearl Farm by arrangement,” our guide tells us. “But for no longer than three days. That’s because the crocodiles in the creek will watch you. Oh yes, they’ll watch your movements carefully and clock what times you go to collect water, where you go and what you do, and on the fourth day they will strike. So for those of you who want to watch crocodiles from afar I can recommend the scenic helicopter flight which operates from here if you’d like to book!”
We arrive at Willie Creek Pearl Farm and we’re greeted by Irishman, Chris who has a twinkle in his eye and the gift of the gab.
“I’m the best looking tour guide in Broome,” he declares, and the scene is set for many quips and lots of laughter.
For the next half hour he turns the pearling industry into a show fit for the stage, or at least comedy fringe theatre, snd we are all equally enthralled and amused by his talk about how pearls are made.
Interesting Broome Pearl Facts and some useless Figures
- The Broome pearl will last for 1000s of years if you care for them properly.
- It’s known as the best pearl in the world and the mother of pearl flourishes in this region because of the tidal movement, the second largest in the southern hemisphere. The current comes in and takes out calcium carbonate from the rock which feeds the oyster.
- The Sensory tissue is the closest an oyster has to a brain.
- The oyster has a muscle which allows it to close.
- This muscle is considered an aphrodisiac in Asia, and is extremely expensive to buy.
- Broome, they say was built on the proceeds and profits from the Mother of Pearl button which was made from pearl shells.
- 80% of oysters are male but 40% are hermaphrodites and can change sex at will.
- There are now 19 pearl farms around Broome. They are dictated by the Department of Fisheries, and if farms go one oyster over quota there’s a $10,000 dollar fine.
The pearling process and fat cash!
Divers collect the baby Pinctada Maxima (the largest pearl shell species in the world ) and bring them to the pearl farm which is 5 kms off the coast. There are 8 marine technicians who work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for three months each year.
They earn in the region of $125,000 for three months work, after which they move on to other pearling areas such as Tahiti.
“But don’t get excited, warns Chris. “They study marine biology, then become certified divers, then do 2 – 5 years unpaid apprenticeships. In all it takes about 8 – 12 years to become fully accredited as a marine technician. They have to be very steady and perform a delicate operation into the gonad of the oyster, and they implant a a tiny natural seed – around which the pearl will grow.”
Fast Facts: Southsea Pearls are cheaper, and one reason is that they are impregnated with a plastic seed and this disintegrates during the life of a pearl. Freshwater pearls are mass produced in China and India and offer a cheap alternative. But they will only last about 20 years before they discolour and disintegrate. 1.2 tonnes of pearls are produced in just one town in China per month.
After the operation the oysters are put onto the ocean floor where they repair themselves in about 10 days. Then they are X-rayed to see that the shell is still intact – after which there’s a process which takes about 32 days in total and divers go up and down 14 times during that time.
85% of those oysters will retain the seed in the Gonad and produce a pearl in 2 years. 15% have spat the seed out.
After two years the pearl is extracted, and a baby pearl may be 8 – 10 mm in size. The oyster is reseeded with a bigger seed and a second generation pearl is produced which is bigger – then a 3rd generation seed, and after year 8 the 4th generation pearl is produced, and this is likely to be 16 – 18mm in size. The 4th generation is the maximum as success rates fall after that.
Did you know? The hologram on eftpos and credit cards is often made with mother of pearl?
After a break on the shady verandah at Willie Creek Pearls, where we’re treated to home made Damper Bread and refreshments (we’re also offered the paid option of a helicopter ride) it’s all aboard The Pearl Princess for a ride into the Willie Creek, which is a full blown estuarine creek where Dugon, Sharks, Dolphins and Crocs reside.
We anchor in a spot of such blue sea that I think we could have died and gone to heaven.
Skipper Tim hauls in a tray of shells and begins to clean them, hacking away at the barnacles and hairs. (The one in the photograph is 4 years old) and it’s interesting to see how much work goes into it.
Then we slowly motor into the creek looking for crocs, and eagles, and bats which we see hanging upside down in the trees.
What an incredible morning.
Next up: We’re off to Matso’s Brewery to try their beers. I’m hanging out for a Matso’s Ginger Beer to be exact!
But more of that tomorrow.
While in Broome my stay was sponsored by the Mantra Hotel Group and I stayed at the Mantra Frangipani. You can read all about the tropical and very lovely resort here: Why Basking in a Bali Style Retreat in Broome is good for you
I’d love to know if you found this post interesting, or was it too long, or would you like to know more about what to do in Broome?