We were lucky with timing as the New Year turns out to be a pearl harvesting time from the fourth of January for two weeks. Our wonderful friends aboard S/y Sugar Shack kindly arranged for us, s/y Major Tom and Auntie to visit a small family pearl farm and we watched them harvest the pearls, seed them again for another growth and then re-attach to the growing sheets. It was fascinating to watch.
The oysters have to be two years old before they seed them and they leave them to grow a pearl for around 18 months (cleaning and checking them regularly inbetween). The more light they get, the more colours on the pearl.
Each oyster can be used 2-3 times before they are discarded and the shells sent to China for use as mother-of-pearl items. In return China send rope and pearl bouys apparently, not money. Rather a good deal for China it seems. The market seems to have bottomed out for pearls apparently so the farmers were a little despondent at their fate and costs.
Harvesting the pearls was a whole family affair and we met brothers, friends and the children of the owner, all with jobs to do. The oysters can only survive 1.5 hours out of the water so there are various basic manual jobs to be done in a rather relaxed sequence.
We were warmly welcomed and watched the process — with our boys in awe of the shiny shells and the magnificent pearls they were retrieving. This small farm (yes it is as small as it looks in the photos, about double the size of a garden shed) produces over 100,000 pearls in one year and there are loads of these farms scattered all around the Gambiers, others much larger.
Not all pearls make the cut and many are classified as “junk” pearls, unable to be sold. Although to me the “junk pearls” do seem to be the ones with character and individuality, rather than a perfect sphere. All the pearls grown in the Gambiers are a myriad of colours with a base of the distinctive grey-metallic Pacific hue. It made a great ‘school trip’ for the boys and we all enjoyed learning something about pearls. We even got to eat some of the pearl ‘meat’ (looks like a scallop to me), although I’m not sure it was to Felix’s taste judging by this face!
From the retired or discarded oysters the boys were able to have a go and find the tiny pearls which they kept much to their amazement and the worker’s hilarity.
A great outing in stunning surroundings and another highlight to our adventure. Big thanks to s/y Sugar Shack for kindly arranging it all.