The fascinating story behind the Broome pearl.
Suddenly exposed in his home of squidgy oyster, the pea crab scurries around the edges of the shell. His job is as housekeeper, cleaning Pinctada maxima, the symbiotic relationship ensuring the oyster’s health and it’s most valuable asset — the Australian South Sea pearl.
The crab and pearl have been exposed by Willie Creek Pearl Farm general manager Paul Birch, who has swapped winemaking in Margaret River for pearl farming 38km north of Broome.
Willie Creek is the family-owned operation of brothers Darren and Robert Banfield, and their mother Valda. The family have created a comprehensive offering in Broome with tours (self-drive, coach tour or helicopter) of the Willie Creek operation where guests can also enjoy scenic helicopter flights, the cafe which has just been rebranded as Harvest offering pearl meat along with other local fare, and a showroom at the farm accompanying those in Broome. There is also Pearl Luggers in town where a tour tells of the hardship, adventure and intrigue of pearling which remained almost unchanged from 1883 through to the 1970s.
Back at the farm, where the milky waters of Willie Creek rise and fall with the tides, Paul explains the anatomy of the oyster, how the Mississippi mud shell nucleus is seeded inside it, and how the oyster creates a nacre coating around the nucleus to become the pearl.
Today’s exposed pearl is not a perfect one — opening the oyster is always a surprise. Its “loose skin” gives a slightly rippled effect, but for Paul that is better for visitors to see.
“There is more of a story pulling out an imperfect pearl than a brilliant one because it shows just how hard it is to produce a perfect pearl,” he says.
“I prefer people to buy a pearl with an understanding behind it. It just gives it so much more meaning.”
The pearl’s value is based on five virtues (shape, colour, lustre, complexion and size) because, as Paul says, “size does matter in two cases — pearls and fishing.”
The tour takes us on to Willie Creek on a 40-person covered boat to see the pearl farm. The Banfields have a 2000 shell quota at Willie Creek, where they can showcase the industry to travellers. The commercial operation of 15,000 shells is 10 nautical miles (18.5km) north in the ocean.
The oysters are held on lines in racks. Paul demonstrates the labour-intensive cleaning and caring process of the shells to keep them healthy.
About 30 minutes is spent on the water. The boat will often make a side creek diversion to where resident crocodile “Nigel no-mates” lives or to spot the diverse creek marine-life, including stingrays, mangrove jacks and sharks.
The tour also includes the showroom, where guide Tiara Lawson is taking guests through an entertaining talk on pearl types, prices and care — wear them or risk them becoming dehydrated and losing their pearly lustre forever.
- A four-hour farm tour with coach pick-up costs $105 (children $55, under-five free, family $265). Self-drive is $65 (children $35, under-five free, family $165). williecreekpearlfarm.com.au
- Pearl Luggers tour costs $25 ($20 concession, $12.50 children, under-five free). Book at 9192 0000 or thebroomeexperience.com.au.
- For more pearling history, along with war, architecture, communication and everyday past life in Broome, visit the volunteer-run Broome Historical Museum. Entry $6 (seniors $4, under-12 free).
DisclaimerAngie Tomlinson was a guest of Australia's North West tourism.
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