A friend of mine once sent me a weblink of a pearl farm in Polynesia somewhere. It looked idyllic and ever since then I’ve always wanted to give pearling a go.
Broome, in northern WA, was a town founded by Japanese pearlers in the 1920s as the waters off the coast proved to have the perfect conditions for pearl oysters to grow.
I arrived in this remote corner of Australia flat out of cash with the romantic notion that I’d make my fortunes aboard a pearling vessel.
On day one I called all the pearling companies in Broome and was lucky enough to be offered a deckhand job. The work began as soon as I stepped on board and was relentless until I left again 11 days later. It was far, far from romantic.
Unlike one or two others, I had managed to contain my sea sickness. The heat and the sun’s glare off the water were much more irritable. I’d coat up in sun cream but could still feel the rays penetrating my skin and eyes. You yearned for a bit of shade or to dive into the turquoise water, but it was a danger zone replete with jellyfish and sharks and with a current that would whisk you off toward Indonesia in no time.
I’d take a moment to reflect my job choice, look at the cuts and scrapes from the barnacles and panels up my arms and down my shins – the odd infections in them, smell the sick stench of sea creatures all around me, feel a sea lice crawling in my eye, itch ‘the rash’ and think, “what on earth am I doing here?” Who voluntarily puts up with these of conditions?
I wasn’t even the worst off. One Japanese worker’s rash stayed with him for a week after leaving the boat. Another Kiwi mate I made on board got some kind of foot dermatitis that took months to clear. The week before I started, the assistant manager lost his whole foot when it got caught in a coil of rope and simply popped off as the ship was berthing. Other incidences were an Iriganji jellyfish sting on one of the divers’ faces, a bleeding eye, a loss of all feeling in someone’s arm and sea boils.
My job as a deckhand on a tinny was to ‘lift shell’ from a certain bank, ferry it back to the main ship where it would be cleaned and then I’d ‘hang shell’ back out again. All day, everyday, either lifting or hanging shell.
ime on the tinny, normally with two colleagues but sometimes three or one, was spent having a yarn, slagging each other, singing, telling jokes, and bitching about this, that and the other.
One of the most valuable things for me coming out of the pearling was getting to know Aussies, or rather Aussie fishermen.
We’re talking mullets and tattoos of naked women from remote coastal towns in WA and the NT, guys with missing fingers and beards that seemed to grow around their whole neck and down their backs. Gentle folk.
The down time at the end of the day often made the whole day seem worth it. Incredible sunsets accompanied by a cold beer and a fishing line. The prize catch was a ‘maki’ (Spanish mackerel). A two metre tiger shark proved to be a bit of fun too.
In hindsight, the pearling experience was the most memorable thing I did in Oz and to be honest one of the best things I’ve done in my life.
On top of the experience of life at sea, the insight to the Aussie maritimers and the pearling industry has given me so many stories and images to remember, not to mention the kudos from my mother when she finds the $60,000 pearl wrapped up under the Christmas tree.