A day in the Life on a Pearl Farm, part two

… continued from September 4th

A Day in the Life
My experience on a South Sea pearl farm in Australia
By Ahbra Perry of ‘On the Reel Productions.’

After the quick break the Captain comes down and stirs everyone up.  The dive boats will hopefully return with a big catch of wild shell, so everyone must prepare the deck to receive it.  Tables are set up, pumps turned on, buckets are out, and nets are up.  In the blink of an eye, the crew dons goggles and gloves, each with a butcher knife in hand.

The crew having fun listening to Bon Jovi while cleaning shell on deck

With a loud bang, the first dive boat slams into the side of the Trident Aurora.   The dinghy is now docked, but still gets thrown around.  The sea became rougher as the sun rose.  Its captain has a difficult time lifting the nets full of shell up to the Trident’s deck.

The shells are dumped onto the table, sorted, and quickly make their way down an assembly line.  The deckhands use their knives to carefully scrape off barnacles and other organisms that are growing on the wild creatures.  The younger oysters are put into nets and returned to the water to mature, while others are coaxed open, pegged to keep them open, and ready to be nucleated by a technician.  This all happens in a mere forty minutes.  Next, everything is cleaned up and the deckhands head to breakfast.

The crew sits to enjoy a bit of “brecky”

Breakfast, like every meal, is a frenzy.  The kitchen and mess area are combined, and definitely nothing spectacular; the Trident is a much older boat, and was only converted to a pearling vessel 15 or 20 years ago.  However, every aspect of the boat has a certain aged charm.  There are barrels of fruit, hot food, cold cereals, and a definite shortage of spoons.  A variety of international sauces and spices adorn every table.  The iconic Australian Vegemite (the most horrific condiment known to man, and so loved by Australian children) sits neglected in the corner, its appearance lost on this crowd of foreigners.  The chef, Francesco, yells and jokes around with the crew.  He is from Sicily, and like me, still hasn’t fully developed his sea legs.  Francesco is the hub of entertainment.  He is here to enjoy life, find adventure and continually makes sure that everyone is happy.  I learned a lot from our interactions, namely that being Italian does not make one a great chef, nor even a good cook.  However, Francesco’s personality and passion for life brings a lot of morale to this floating community, as does the fact that there will always be cereal and milk.

Dan has no apprehensions toward his burnt hot dogs and canned spaghetti omelet

Breakfast is quick and then it’s back to the deck to take on the next tasks.  It’s a harvesting day, so the technicians are set up in a room that opens outward to the deck.  The Trident does not boast the sterile and well-lit operating room one might imagine, nor even a stable ground for the precise and intricate procedure that the technicians perform.

Six technicians sit at what seem to be oversized elementary school desks in a semicircle facing the walls.  The middle of the room is stacked high with crates of live oyster patiently awaiting their operation.  Each technician has a variety of Tupperware on his or her desk: three contain different sized nuclei, one holds tools, one holds pearls, and the last contains very tiny crabs.  Although I’ve spent three years working on this film, and am very familiar with the seeding process, nowhere else had I seen crustacean assistance- I figured it could be a seaman’s version of a Chia Pet.

Tiny crabs removed from the wild-caught shell during first graft operation

I moved in closer to one of the Japanese technicians to ask him about his crab collection.  His pearl bucket is piled high with 12-16mm high luster White South Sea pearls.  He finishes harvesting another perfectly round and gleaming pearl, adds it to his pile, inserts a larger nuclei into the oyster, and spins around to enlighten me.

Well, it turns out that this ‘pile o’ crab’ is a very common thing.  Unlike pearl farms with hatcheries, Australian pearl farms collect wild shell.  It is typical in the wild for a small crab to live inside and grow with the oyster.  They thrive off of each other, maintaining a symbiotic relationship.  This technician prefers to remove the crab for better pearl growth, but other techs like to leave them in.  As we were talking, two of the overhead lights flickered out and wind began to pick up, heavily swaying the boat.

To be continued on September 13th …

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