The pearl principle

By Cathy Finch August 9, 2022
Reading Time: 9 Minutes Print this page
A community festival has helped keep the Kimberley Coast’s prestigious pearling industry alive, protecting it from a crisis caused by economic downturn and a disease.

On the remote tip of Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula, the small, vibrant community of Cygnet Bay comes alive each spring to celebrate the end of the annual pearl harvest.

Now in its fifth year, the Pearl Harvest Festival is a three-day event run by Cygnet Bay Pearls, one of Australia’s oldest pearl farms. Located about 220km north of Broome on the pristine Kimberley Coast – where striking sandstone escarpments tower over white sandy beaches and lush mangrove forests give way to sweeping tidal creeks – the family-run farm has a history spanning more than 75 years.

Staff from Cygnet Bay Pearls prepare from the highly-anticipated Stranded in Style event of the annual Pearl Harvest Festival. Image credit: Cathy Finch

The festival is the brainchild of James Brown, a third-generation pearl farmer and Cygnet Bay Pearls’ manager. His grandfather Dean Brown visited Cygnet Bay’s secluded beaches in 1946 while navigating the Kimberley Coast in a wooden pearl lugger. There, in offshore waters, Dean harvested the Australian South Sea pearl oyster for its shell. Also known as the silver-lipped oyster, this is one of the world’s largest and rarest pearl oyster species. It produces the prized South Sea pearl and its shell contains a hard inner iridescent layer of lustrous nacre – mother-of-pearl.

The Brown family has been harvesting oysters here ever since Dean arrived, first by diving for wild oysters and laterby spawning oyster spat in hatcheries and cultivating the adults to produce pearls. Their pearl-farming business was established in 1960 and is one of only three companies to have survived the calamitous oyster losses that occurred in the Kimberley in 2007 after Oyster Oedema Disease spread through South Sea pearl oyster populations. The disease, coupled with the global financial crisis in 2008, devastated and almost destroyed the local pearl industry.

As part of a survival strategy, Cygnet Bay Pearls began integrating tourism into its operations and opened its doors to the public. Since 2009, the farm has attracted more than 10,000 visitors a year and it’s not hard to see what brings tourists here: the farm is perched in a picturesque setting, where the Kimberley’s red pindan soil meets the warm turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.

But the business now also offers a number of tourism experiences. Visitors are able to stay in glamping safari tents or the original pearling shacks of the 1960s and ’70s. And they can explore the surrounding scenery on land or sea tours and learn about the cultural significance of South Sea pearls to the local Bardi Jawi people.

And then there’s the jewel in the tourism crown – the annual Pearl Harvest Festival. “Harvest is always a nail-biting time for us,” says Jess Hornblow, an executive manager at Pearls of Australia, an umbrella company established by James Brown in 2018. “It takes two years to grow a pearl. That’s a long time to wait to see if you’ve done it right.”

An aerial view of Cockle Cove with people gathering for a festival.
Guests arrive by boat at Cockle Cove, the secret location of the “stranded” destination during 2021’s festival. Image credit: Cathy Finch

The pearl farm produces cultured pearls. These are created through a natural process that occurs when an introduced irritant such as a shell-based seed, typically from a mussel shell, is carefully inserted into an oyster’s soft tissue. The bead becomes the nucleus of a pearl, around which the oyster secretes protective layer upon layer of nacre, gradually building a coveted gem. Not every oyster will produce a pearl. Some will contain an implanted bead without any nacre deposits; some will contain a bead that is partially covered; and some will contain only keshi, tiny natural pearls produced by oysters in response to irritants.

The joy of the harvest is when an oyster’s shell is opened to reveal a perfectly formed and lustrous gem-quality pearl nestled in the mollusc’s flesh. The annual festival celebrates this phenomenon as it’s replicated across the farm each year, bringing together staff, locals from surrounding Kimberley Coast communities, and tourists.

As the sun sets over the beach at Cockle Cove, a school of mullet glides through the mangroves, soft tunes hang in the balmy air, and the warm glow of an evening bonfire flickers golden light onto smiling faces. Earlier this afternoon, we were adorned with strands of local pearls – on loan for the evening – before we boarded amphibious vehicles and cruised to this secluded beach. This evening, as part of the festival’s ticketed Stranded in Style event, we’re being stranded (with pearls) on the sands of Cockle Cove to sip champagne, feast on canapés, and watch the sun set over the bay as the 2021 Pearl Harvest Festival is officially opened.

“This has been a very big year,” James says, welcoming us to the weekend-long festival. “With the climate-change effect in our waters and the disease and health issues we’ve faced, our challenges over the past years have been immense,” he says. “I am so happy to tell you that we have recently done a trial harvest of a crop that is coming out of the water very soon, and we were shocked to find that they are the best pearls we’ve seen here at Cygnet Bay since the onset of those mystery diseases…that’s an extraordinary, unexpected positive.”

A man walks through the shallows of the ocean carrying a fishing rod across his shoulder and a crab in his other hand.
The local Bardi Jawi people retain a close relationship with the land and sea and gather food such as mud crabs in the same way they’ve done for millennia. Image credit: Cathy Finch

The crowd cheers. James finishes his welcoming address, we raise our glasses, and the festival is officially in full swing. All around me Cygnet Bay pearls are on display. Some of us are wearing strands, others are wearing pendants or bracelets. Some of the pearls are perfectly round, others are baroque (irregularlyshaped). I see drop- and button-shaped pearls, half-circles, and non-spherical, lumpy pearls. They range in price from a couple of hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars apiece. We excitedly peruse each other’s loaned adornments – a wonderful way to meet fellow festival-goers and a beautiful introduction to the world of pearls.

“Even as staff we get excited when we get to wear strands,” Jess says. “It makes us feel special, a bit rockstarish even.” The pearls are available for purchase, but there is no pressure on anyone to buy them. “It’s about making people feel special in jewellery that they may never own or choose to own,” Jess explains. “It sets the vibe. It’s like, from me to you, here’s us in friendship tonight. It’s the Kimberley way.”

The three day festival packed with activities, including presentations about the history of pearling in the Kimberley, pearl harvesting and pearl-meat cooking demonstrations and tastings, pearl-appreciation talks, and presentations by marine researchers about the health of the Kimberley waterways. There are live music events, competitions, and giveaways. The farm’s restaurant is open, and festival-goers are free to swim in the farm’s infinity pool.

For a unique perspective, I join a flight over the Dampier Peninsula with KAS Helicopters. Pilot Hilary Wilkins is offering tours all weekend. She points out landmarks in the ancient landscape, including the distinctive red cliffs of nearby Cape Leveque. The swirling tides are mesmerising, and the shallows are teeming with marine life. At one point, a school of 10 or more reef sharks appears highly visible against the sandy seabed. Around the next outcrop, a saltwater crocodile cruises past the cliffs. Small sandy beaches are interrupted by rocky outcrops that are home to fresh oysters.

Bardi Jawi Elder Bruce Wiggan shakes hands with a man across a table at the Pearl Harvest Festival.
Bardi Jawi Elder Bruce Wiggan revels in meeting visitors and locals at the annual Pearl Harvest Festival. Image credit: Cathy Finch

The South Sea oyster is a solitary species that thrives in waters rich with microscopic plankton. Like all oysters, it is a filter feeder that plays an important role in maintaining and even restoring marine environments. South Sea oysters filter algae from the plankton and in the process clear the water. This helps sunlight penetrate, which in turn promotes the health of seagrasses and other underwater habitats.

For more than 40,000 years, the Bardi Jawi people have harvested pearl oysters in the waters off the Dampier Peninsula. Traditionally, pearl meat was an important food source and shells were carved into artworks known as riji, which were worn during ceremonies and traded. Skilled artisans would shape the shells into teardrops, known as guwan, then carve lines and patterns into them using kangaroo jawbones. They’d stain the designs with red ochre, creating the riji.

Bruce Wiggan, a Bardi Jawi Elder, is the resident riji artist at Cygnet Bay. His creations are on display at the farm, and he enjoys demonstrating his craft to visitors. Following in his father’s footsteps, Bruce etches stories into the oyster shells and is proud to be keeping the ancient tradition alive. His family has worked closely with the Brown family since Dean arrived in the region on his wooden lugger in 1946. The families share a strong multigenerational relationship; in the early days, the Wiggans and Browns dived for pearl shells together at Cygnet Bay, and in the 1960s worked together and became some of the first Australians to successfully culture South Sea pearls.

I meet Bruce’s brother Dilleye Wiggan, a tour guide with Cygnet Bay Pearls, on day two of the festival when I join his Giant Tides Boat Tour. As we venture out into King Sound to experience the power of the world’s largest tropical tides and witness some of the fastest ocean currents on the planet, giant whirlpools swirl around us. Dilleye stands proudly at the front of our amphibious vessel and spreads his arms wide. “Let me show you my Country,” he says, beaming with pride.

People wearing green plastic aprons in a shed participate in an oyster-eating competition.
Festival-goers race to be first to crack open their oysters and eat them in the not-so-tasty oyster-eating competition. Image credit: Cathy Finch

Back on dry land the festival continues. Before dinner, a line-up of willing but unsuspecting festival- goers throw their hats in the ring to compete in this year’s oyster-eating competition. A handful are selected at random, and the competition begins. They must dress in gumboots and an apron, then split open a South Sea oyster and eat its meat.

“[South Sea] oysters grow to the size of a dinner plate,” Jess says to the contestants. “So tonight, we’ve been kind and only given you a beginner’s oyster.” The first person to show they’ve eaten their oyster will be crowned the winner. “Before you eat your oyster, however, you must first check for pearls,” Jess says, laughing. She warns the contestants to also check for pea crabs, which are likely to be housed in the shells with the oyster.

A buzzer sounds and the crowd goes wild. Angus from Perth is off to a good start, but Jodie from Broome is already steaming ahead – she’s been to a harvest party before and her experience shows. Sarah from Broome can’t get her shell open. Ben from Darwin and Naomi from Karratha are current Cygnet Bay staff, but that’s not helping them tonight – they’re trailing far behind.

Local Bardi Jawi man Frank Davey Jr, from the nearby Gumbanan Wilderness Retreat, takes out the honours. I ask whether he’s ever eaten a South Sea oyster before. “No, I haven’t,” he says, grimacing. “That was horrible.” The crowd roars with laughter and we make our way to the harvest buffet to feast on things more pleasant.

The last day of the festival the festival, Family Fun Day, raises money for a cause close to James’s heart: Save the Children’s Woombooriny Amboon Angarriiya Partnership Initiative. This aims to ensure Dampier Peninsula children and youths grow up strong, proud, healthy and connected to their families, communities and culture. James is an ambassador.

It is a day filled with live music, a sausage sizzle, face painting and family-friendly activities, including a water slide. It marks the end of the festival and brings together local families. Many have a personal connection to the Cygnet Bay farm. “When my great-grandfather came here, he worked with a number of local Aboriginal families,” James says. “Some of the children from those families are among my best friends, even today.”

James is inspired by the region’s long pearling tradition, and proud of his family’s 75-year history in Cygnet Bay. “Life here has always been about the struggle to create a sustainable community amid some of the world’s most wild, remote, challenging, but intensely beautiful, country,” he says. “I feel like we are doing this in this most spectacular part of our world. I am so proud of my parents, and my grandparents before them, for doing this.”

Over the years, Cygnet Bay Pearls has evolved to survive. Although the Pearl Harvest Festival is still young, it’s an important part of the company’s future. “By opening Cygnet Bay up to tourists and welcoming you here to join with us this weekend in our celebrations, you too are now part of our story,” James says. “This is your story too.”