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

… continued from September 9th

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

Extreme skill and precision is precision is required when operating on an oyster.  This job is tasked to only the most masterful and reliable hands with years of training under their belt.  Every time the oyster is handled it is at risk.  Every step in the process of caring for this creature is important, but this step, implanting the seed, is the most crucial for the future of the pearl and the oysters’ survival.  The fate of the farm lies in the hands of these techs.

Nucleating an oyster would be similar to performing oral surgery on a person who happens to house all of their vital organs in their mouth.  What was happening here was like getting a cavity filled by a dentist who walks on a Stairmaster while operating in a dimly-lit flea market.

Patrick, the farm manager, reassures me: “Our shells don’t come from a lab, they come from the wild.  Pearls, as rare as they are, occur naturally…so you shouldn’t need a doctor’s office or computer laboratory to facilitate that, just an understanding and appreciation of the animal.  A little dirt won’t hurt.”  As for the choppy seas: “All the techs get used to it – they have a good center of gravity and their eyes adjust.”

After the pearls are harvested, the oysters are re-nucleated, put back into crates, picked up by a deck hand, stitched into panels, and put back into the water where they will be cared for and tended for the another years.  If the oyster was not a great pearl grower, it still gets another shot or two at redemption.  However, eventually the subpar oysters are split open and cleaned out.  Their adductor muscle, a translucent thumb-sized piece of meat, is removed and packed for market.  Some of the crew slurp a raw one or two down during cleanings.  It must be an acquired taste, or possibly the best alternative to Francesco’s approaching lunch.  Pearl meat, is it is called, sells like crazy in Asia – around $100 per kilogram for raw, or $400 per kilogram for the dried stuff.  The rest of the oyster is tossed to the seagulls and the shell is cleaned off and exported for processing.

Pearl meat, fresh, clean, and ready to eat

After lunch, I follow Patrick up to the wheelhouse to look at some of the harvest.  The wheelhouse has three walls of large windows, offering great daylight for pearl-sorting.  Patrick dumps a basket of freshly harvested pearls into a table-top washer, lets it spin noisily for a few minutes, and empties the pearls onto a white gym towel.    Patrick sets up four empty Tupperware and goes to work.

I really did not expect him to move so quickly.  He grabs a pearl between his fingers and almost by touch alone knows in which container to toss it.  With absolute certainty he can decide the fate of each pearl in a matter of milliseconds.  Only after playing back the footage in slow-motion (240 frames per second, or 1/10th the speed of real life) was I also able to decipher the categories of the pearls.

Pat holds up a high luster 14mm perfectly round White South Sea pearl in the sunlight and smiles. “This is the best part,” he says.  “I had low expectations for this harvest because the shells where hit by two typhoons in two months.”  He rolls his hands lovingly through a bucket of about 100 perfectly round white pearls.  Pat grabs two more pearls out of the Tupperware and hollers at me to come out onto the deck. “Come look at this!”

Patrick Moase, the Clipper and Autore GM, takes a moment to inspect a near perfect pearl in the sun.

The sun is starting to get low and we hold the pearls up to the light.  They reveal a deep pink glow.  He snaps his arm back and chucks the gem out into the sea.  I choke, about to dive in after it. “Ha, just kidding!”  He laughs, revealing the pearl in his hand.  “This is a good one, I would go overboard first!”

Look for the final installment on September 16th …

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 …

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

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

The iPhone alarm rings faintly; even Siri is still half asleep.  There is rustling in the hallway.  Someone must be as confused as I am.  Hunched awkwardly in my cubbyhole of a bed, I pull open the porthole curtain to reveal dense blackness.  I begin to worry.  Maybe the ship began taking on water as I slept and we are now rapidly sinking, plunging deep below the surface of the ocean to a certain death, or worse- it’s really still that dark outside.  I grab my toothbrush, fall out of my person-pantry (ladders are of little use at this time of the morning) and stumble into the hallway.

I make my way up to the deck like a drunken pinball, banging into the opposite side of the wall with every step.  I throw my body against a heavy door and tumble onto the main deck where the harsh cold of sea air quickly gnaws at my core.  My earlier fears are quickly realized.  It’s 4:30 in the morning, totally dark outside (the sun isn’t even thinking about coming up for at least another hour), and everyone is already working.

Pearl farm life is strenuous, but for those who toil forward, rising at ungodly hours, it can be some of the most inspiring and rewarding work one can do.  As on any farm, there is the constant challenge of creating and maintaining a delicate balance with Mother Nature.  The pearl farmer is unavoidably at her mercy.

Each farm that I have visited in the past three years has shown me an occupation that is rich in adventure, and in beauty.

The requirements for a perfect site place these farms in pristine and picturesque environments in some of the most remote reaches of the world.  Success in these regions relies heavily on the support of the communities built and sustained by these farms and is uniquely shaped by the indigenous cultures of the area.

Saltwater pearl farming has the potential to create positive impact on all fronts- we would be hard-pressed to find another industry to say the same for.

My film crew’s brief time documenting the life aboard the ships of an Australian South Sea pearl farm provided an experience marked by escapades that only pearl farming could offer.

The Trident Aurora serves as the command center for the Clipper Pearl Farm, and raises her anchor around 4 am.  The divers will hit the water at first light, so all equipment must be prepared, tested, and properly functioning before dawn.  Mistakes are not an option sixty feet below sea level.

Clipper Pearl’s and Autore’s mothership the Trident Aurora

Clipper Pearl’s and Autore’s mothership the Trident Aurora

Immediately after the dive boats are dispatched, preparation for their return is allegedly to begin.  In reality, all deck hands immediately gather around the “WC” – not a toilet, but instead a closet containing instant coffee, Milo (a vitamin-enriched chocolate powder), and hot water.  Everyone drags on rollies – hand rolled cigarettes, the bulk of whose tobacco tends to be taken by the wind.  If the United Nations had a locker room, the chatter would sound something like these deckhands.  The majority of them are young backpackers.  Traveling the world, they are likely in need of a paycheck to afford their next destination.  Greeks, Brits, a Scott, a Norwegian, Germans, Spaniards, French, and of course those from Australia and neighboring New Zealand all confer over a cup of coffee (and quite literally- I’m pretty sure there is really only one mug for ten people).  Being in such tight quarters, they will get close quickly.  Some have already been on a few trips out to sea together, while the rest are “real fresh for the season,” as one of the Kiwis tells me.

To be continued on September 9th …

Welcoming On The Reel Production & Power of Pearl

Two and a half years ago I took a trip around the world with a film crew, shooting pearl farms in some of the remotest reaches of the world. It was on this trip that our short Tahitian Pearl Documentary was filmed – the same documentary that went on to win the 2013 IFFF Short Film, Documentary award.

The crew that I traveled with, from On the Reel Productions, is still traveling and shooting today, most recently on a pearl farm in Northwest Australia – beyond the outback, where crocodiles outnumber people.

On the Reel Productions is owned by Ahbra Perry and Taylor Higgins, a pair of young filmmakers that have spent the past four years working closely with the pearl industry, visiting a total of 11 different countries. They’ve succeeded in capturing the real story of pearl production and the relationships pearl producers have with local communities and Mother Nature, with boots on the ground and flippers in the water.

Ahbra and Taylor’s film, “Power of Pearl,” is now in full production. If anyone would like to be a part of this film, sponsor information can be found here.

I’ve also invited Ahbra to do a short series of guest posts on our blog, detailing a day in the life of a pearl farming crew, as told by her experience in Australia. I hope everyone enjoys her story.