There’s history – good and bad – in the bays of the West Kimberley. On a working pearl farm discover how the industry has shaped the region’s diverse culture.
In the sticky shade of an oyster hatchery veranda, a pearl oyster is pulled from a holding tank. Rivulets of salty water cascade from the encrusted shell. Beyond the concrete terrace, orange sand dunes bake and mangrove roots spread like giant eagle claws, gripping the edge of an exposed mudflat. Distant water shimmers as the tide prepares to return.
Guide Terry Hunter places the oyster on a rustic wooden table and gently prises open its shell. He explains how tiny pieces of mussel shell and oyster tissue are inserted to stimulate the deposition of pearl shell and form a cultured pearl.
He shows us the meat, which he says he’ll be eating later, and probes around the oyster, finding the pearl sac. As the pearl emerges, I gasp. A large, lustrous orb rests in Terry’s rugged palm.
I’m at Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, on the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia’s Kimberley, 220 kilometres north of Broome. Terry is the fourth generation of his family to live and work at Cygnet Bay. His great grandfather was a diver and skipper for founder Dean Brown. But his people go way back. Terry belongs to the local Bardi tribe and they’ve lived here for at least 40,000 years.
Terry’s oldest friend is James Brown, the current managing director of Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm and the third generation of his family to run it. James’ grandfather started pearling here in 1946, initially using his wooden pearl lugger to harvest the local pearl oysters, Pinctada maxima, for their mother-of-pearl shell.
Dean Brown scratched out a living in this harsh environment. “He was frowned upon by white people in Broome because he chose to work and live out with the Aboriginal people,” James says. “He paid them, he lived with them and they were his closest friends.”
Cultured pearls were first produced in the Kimberley at Kuri Bay by Japanese technicians, but Dean and his son Lyndon were keen to discover the secret to their success. Living in a paperbark hut at Cygnet Bay, Lyndon eventually produced the first South Sea pearls cultured by a non-Japanese technician. With Lyndon, three Bardi men, Aubrey Tigan, Tom Wiggan and Gordon Dixon, became the first Australian pearl seeders.
In the region’s original mother-of-pearl industry, the relationship between white pearlers and other races was far less amicable. The town of Broome owes its existence to demand for pearl shell that was used for buttons, cutlery handles and furniture inlay. In the 1860s it was mostly collected by Aboriginal ‘divers’, many of whom used no breathing equipment or goggles.
It’s not a career they chose. Slavery was not officially legal in Australia, but traders known as blackbirders would abduct Indigenous people from their country at gunpoint and march them, often in neck chains, for sale in Broome. It is said the women had astonishing lung capacity, diving to 13 metres to collect shells.
Terry has his own confronting links to this deplorable human trade. His great, great grandfather was Harry Hunter, a known murderer and notorious blackbirder who traded Aboriginal slaves. “It’s a dark part of our history, but a part that needs to be told today,” Terry says. “Being part of that Hunter family, it’s really important to share that message.”
In the 1880s, diving with helmets and suits became the norm. Workers and divers were brought from Japan, Malaya, China, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Roti, Timor and the Moluccas. Most workers were indentured labour, forced to pay back debts, including the costs of their transport from Asia – many never succeeded. One in 10 divers would die from what is known these days as decompression sickness.
By 1914 Broome was supplying 80 per cent of the world’s pearl shell, with more than 3,500 people involved in the industry. World War II interrupted its progress, but the growing preference for plastic buttons had already seen demand dwindle.
Northwest Indigenous tribes have had a more enduring relationship with pearl shells. “It’s what makes the Bardi people connect to land, to the ocean,” Terry explains. Remnants of pearl shells from this part of Australia have been found in distant regions like western Queensland and coastal South Australia, traded from tribe to tribe for ochre, spearheads and boomerangs for at least 22,000 years.
In the Cygnet Bay showroom, I see tear-drop shaped shells, mother-of-pearl shimmering, amid carved Aboriginal motifs. These are riji, and black-and-white photos show men adorned with the shells, wearing their own stories.
Each riji story is handed down through a family’s generations. The tradition continues, and Bruce Wiggan is a master carver who still creates riji at Cygnet Bay. “Now the younger generation will shape the riji for him, then watch and listen to the stories as he’s carving it,” Terry explains.
Pearling traditions have continued in the town of Broome, too, but instead of ramshackle tin sheds, these days shiny jewellery stores with harvesting demonstrations and statues of Japanese pearling pioneers line Dampier Terrace.
Broome’s inequitable past has morphed into a multicultural present. Today, the town supports a thriving Chinatown district, and tourists beginning a Kimberley adventure dine in funky Asian-fusion restaurants. Visitors stroll the serene Japanese cemetery, the last resting place of the pearl divers. The Chinese and Muslim cemeteries remember others that died far from home.
The town celebrates its pearling heritage with the annual Shinju Matsuri festival. This year between 29 August and 6 September the event will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. After being opened by Sammy the dragon, it will include events like the long-table dinner on Cable Beach, a floating lantern ceremony and Indigenous art light projections.
Although affected by Covid-19, the pearling industry will bounce back. James explains this is not the first dilemma it has faced, citing the global financial crisis and climate change-induced oyster fatalities.
To survive, Cygnet Bay’s hatchery now breeds from from the strongest pearl oysters proven to endure the warming ocean. In 2009 Cygnet Bay diversified into tourism, offering a variety of accommodation, including stylish eco-tents, complete with en suites and glorious morning birdsong, overlooking the ocean.
The company also changed its model and moved away from wholesaling. “There are a lot of substitutions, and factories that are chemically altering low-grade pearl products,” James says. He wants people to understand the provenance of their pearls, so the business is now vertically integrated, encompassing pearl production, jewellery making and retailing.
After Terry’s harvesting tour, my learning continues at a hands-on pearl grading lesson with Tamika Michie, who tutors us on the five virtues of pearls: size, shape, colour, surface and lustre. Among the jewels we scrutinise is Terry’s freshly harvested orb. Tamika concludes it will retail for $1,120.
Aside from pearling tours, James wants his guests to understand the Kimberley marine environment that nurtures these masterpieces, and I find myself on an amphibious vehicle, trundling across expansive tidal mudflats.
We transfer to a speed boat, and Indigenous skipper Dennis ‘Balla’ Davey tells us traditional stories as we zoom beneath mighty eagles and past bobbing sea turtles. His legends are enhanced by science, as marine biologist Ben Leeson explains the extreme tidal forces here that buffet our boat and facilitate pearl oyster growth. “Every six hours, 66 billion litres of water fills or drains nearby King Sound, and Escape Channel is one of the main exit points for that water,” he explains.
At Waterfall Reef, the falling tide pours out of an ancient, living reef, creating a cascading wall of seawater. Before returning, we pull alongside the pearling team’s boat as they check on panels of seeded oysters suspended in the ocean.
Experiences like these may soon be even more popular – later this year the unreliable Cape Leveque Road will finally be sealed, providing an easier link to Broome.
The road will also deliver more tourists to nearby Kooljaman, a remote wilderness camp owned and run by the Bardi Jawi community. When I ask James if increased tourism will damage Indigenous culture, he explains that tourism has actually helped preserve it: “You’ve got people who have created really amazing businesses from tourism, and it’s all based around their cultural integrity.”
With the support of his friends, Terry has also started his own business, Borrgoron Coast to Creek Tours, operating from the pearl farm. James hopes to assist other Indigenous tourism and aquaculture businesses. He says the Dampier Peninsula could be a case study of how to make significant differences to the lives of First Nations people by working together. “The only thing that works is empowering people,” he says.
Cygnet Bay may one day employ a fifth generation of the Hunter family. “My third oldest boy is interested in pearling and cultural tours,” Terry says. “Problem is, a lot of Indigenous kids are very shy.” It’s astounding, but this problem apparently plagued Terry himself. He assures me he got over it with the right support. “I’m not so shy any more,” he says and laughs. With partnerships like these, the multicultural future of pearling is almost assured.
From Broome, hire a car for the 220-kilometre drive to Cygnet Bay. At the time of writing, 90 kilometres of the road remain unsealed and a 4WD is highly recommended. Charter flights or day trips visiting Kooljaman and Cygnet Bay are available through Broome Aviation or King Leopold Air from Broome.
Accommodation at Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm ranges from powered campsites to the Masters Pearler’s House, a three-bedroom retreat. Safari tents start at AU$200 a night. The restaurant serves good coffee and fresh meals with Japanese influences. Bardi-style beach shelters at Kooljaman start at AU$120 a night. There is also camping. Its excellent restaurant, Raugi, specialises in Indigenous foods, like the bush tucker tasting platter with smoked kangaroo and emu. In Broome, there is accommodation for most budgets. The newly renovated Mangrove Hotel on Roebuck Bay has spacious rooms (from AU$273 a night) and a great garden bar.