Wednesday, June 17, 2015

5 Days and Nights in The Kimberley - Day 3 - Pearl Obsession

We're not the first to be drawn to Broome by the allure of its pearls.

Over the centuries these lustrous orbs have driven men and women to do extraordinary things in their attempts to possess them.

Broome’s history is defined by the presence of the ‘Pinctada Maxima’ – the world’s largest pearl oyster shell – discovered in Roebuck Bay in 1861. When they were discovered the giant pinctada shells caused a sensation overseas and soon a melting pot of nationalities flocked to the shores of Broome in the hope of making their fortune. Japanese, Malays and Koepangers joined the Aboriginal pearl divers, whilst the Chinese became the shopkeepers in town. Remnants of Broome’s exotic past are everywhere; in its food, people, architecture, and flora. Sadly there are also memorials to all those who died in pursuit of pearls.

White colonial pearl masters ran a brutal trade. Local indigenous and Polynesian divers were 'kanaked' or virtually enslaved to retrieve these precious jewels and their shells (Before plastics were invented all buttons were made from pearl shell because they could withstand being washed in hot water). Many divers died during the risky dives.  They fill the towns cemeteries.There's a cemetery in Broome with the graves of just the nearly 1000 Japanese divers who died from 'the bends' or from drowning.

The search for the perfect pearl is still big business today.

We're on a pearl tour of Australia's oldest pearl farm, the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, on the Dampier Peninsula surrounded by the Kimberley's King Sound waterway. It's a pristine environment almost untouched by humans.
Cygnet Bay is famous for producing the world's largest South Sea pearl. The pearl is kept under tight security at Cygnet Bay's Broome showroom so we didn't get to see it ourselves but apparently it is a magnificent specimen which took several decades to grow.

It measures 22.24mm in diameter and 70 mm in circumference. It glows white pink in colour and weighs 156 grams. A local wholesaler of South Sea Pearls, Rosario Autore, founder and CEO of Autore pearls, believes the pearl is 'priceless', and to his knowledge is the only one of its size and quality in the world. I wonder if we'll find a pearl today....?

Our tour guide has removed a Pinctada Maxima pearl oyster from the tank to show us how an oyster actually makes a pearl. As you can see, the oyster looks more like an abalone in size and in the shape of its internal organs.

The pearl we find in our oyster is beautiful to our amateur eye but apparently worthless due to its minute blemishes and imperfections. When determining the value of a pearl there are five 'virtues' the pearl farmer assesses - its size, shape, colour, skin and lustre.
Our pearl doesn't cut the mustard on any of these grades and will possibly be crushed up and reused as a starter nucleus for a new pearl in another oyster shell.

It can take up to 8 years for a Pinctada Maxima to create an oyster. Usually this randomly occurs in nature in every 100,000 oysters. You never know what quality of pearl you'll actually get - which is what makes pearls so rare and expensive.

At Cygnet Bay farm they use a cultured pearl technique which increases pearl production by 80% and takes a lot of the guess work out of the process. It's still risky though. The technique involves inserting a nucleus (usually a piece of oyster shell) into the new host oyster causing it to secrete a glossy white nacre around it over time - and giving us a pearl!

During their lifetime the oysters sometimes develop a symbiotic relationship with a local tiny pea crab. The crab uses the oyster as a safe home and in return acts as a security guard. If the crab senses danger it uses its claw to activate the oyster's muscle to close its shell locking out a potential intruder. How cool is that? Who knew there was a tiny crab in there running the show?

And it's not only the pearl that the oyster is valuable for.

It's abductor muscle or 'pearl meat' is a highly sought after seafood delicacy and can fetch anything up to $100 per kilo.

We were lucky enough to sample some pearl meat - served sashimi-style - as a starter at Cygnet Bay's newly-opened  'Shell' restaurant. It had an amazing texture similar to scallops and soft abalone. A wonderful carrier for Asian flavours such as ginger and soya sauce.

 Well the pearl part of our tour is over. It's now time for a little adventure.

The Kimberley coast has the biggest tides in the southern hemisphere. The difference between high tide and low tide can be as much as 10 metres.
These great surges of water create some extraordinary phenomena including the 'Giant Tides' which we are off to experience nearby.

Bet you've never seen a boat like this before? This amphibian craft with wheel extenders is perfect for manoeuvring up steep jetties to pick up passengers.

We zip through the clear deep waters at extraordinary speeds to meet up with our tour boat.

Once on-board our expert skipper jets us out to the bay so we can see these tidal whirlpools up close.

I feel the need for speed.
Due to the funnel-like shape of the King Sound the water gushes over the rock beds creating these long ledges of low-lying waterfalls everywhere.
With sea and salt through our hair its back on our light plane for our trip back to Broome.
A flight with Kimberley Aviation is the best way to see this breathtaking landscape. It's also the best way to see the Kimberley's most spectacular waterfall.
The Horizontal Waterfall is an awe-inspiring example of what water does when it is forced through narrow openings at great speed. Simply magnificent.
Can this landscape get any more spectacular?
Proof that nature was the original artist.
Such immaculate beauty. Tragic to be to be told there are iron ore mines on some of them.
Back safely at Broome airport and dazzled by another day in the Kimberley.
What could tomorrow have in store for us I wonder....?
Saucy onion travelled to the Kimberley with assistance from Tourism WA.
Photographs by Mark FitzGerald, Indira Naidoo and courtesy of Kimberley Aviation.

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