Willie Creek Pearl Farm Tour

I have always loved shells and was interested in how one can make a pearl grow. This area grows the best south sea pearls in the world, so this is the best place to do a pearl farm tour. Pearls are the only gem that are grown by a living organism and it’s this biological process that makes them even more interesting for me. Willie Creek Pearl farm is 38km north of Broom on the Dampier Penninsula and one of the most comprehensive pearl tours that you can do. We were camped on a cliff just north so just had a short drive down to the farm.

A natural pearl is made of calcium carbonate deposited in layers and is produced when an irritant (often a grain of sand) gets trapped in the mantle folds of an oyster. Cultured pearls are produced by making this process happen. They make an oyster cranky and feel like it needs to protect itself by producing a pearl! M


willy creek from the air
This is what Willie Creek farm looks like from the air. A really beautiful area. The dark line in the water are the oysters in the trays hanging on lines just below the surface of the water being fed by the currents and large tides and growing pearls (hopefully)!
steve a willie creek pearl farm
Steve wondering if I am going to buy a really big pearl at the end of the tour? Doesn’t he look a bit nervous?

Pearl Farming is a fully regulated fishing industry regulated by the Dept and Fisheries. It is unique in that it sustainable ecologically, economically and socially. There are 15 pearl licenses in Western Australia.

The early pearl shell industry was a very different story with oysters being pulled out of the sea as quickly as they could be found. It was similar to a gold rush with mother of pearl shell being used to make buttons, cutlery handles, car paints, furniture inlay etc. This all ended with the discovery of plastics around 1949.

With the end of the first industry a new one was born in the 1950’s in Australia. I had always heard that the cultured pearl industry began with Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan in 1899.  British/Australian Scientist William Saville-Kent was experimenting with growing pearls on Thursday Island and was already able to grow half pearls and there is some who think that the Japanese may have accessed Kent’s knowledge and brought this back to Japan and patented it. Saville-Kent was Commisioner of Fisheries for Western Australia from 1892-1895 and was a pioneer of the concept of sustainable fisheries. M

oysters shell sizes
Pinctada Maxima Oyster shells. These grow to be the biggest oysters in the world, which is why Australia is able to grow such big pearls. These will grow a white south sea pearl or very occasionally a gold one.
oyster anatomy
Nice to know it has a heart.
oyster life stages
Oysters are grown in the hatchery. They are filter feeders filtering about 50 litres of water per hour in the ocean feeding on microscopic phytoplankton and other organic material.
growing algae to feed baby oysters
The farmed oysters are fed  algae grown in the lab to get them started and big enough to put in the ocean.
oyster holders
They start life connected to the little ropes on left hand panel  clinging by a little “foot”and then graduate up to the panel at the right. This will hang suspended from a long line a few metres below the surface of the ocean where they love the huge tides that bring them food.
tools of the trade
A bead nucleus is implanted in a mature shell. A mature shell takes about 2 years to grow before it is ready to grow a cultured pearl. Then another 2 years to grow a pearl. The same oyster may be implanted more than once if healthy and producing well.
nucleus formation
A bead nucleus is made by cutting up a type of mussel shell and polishing it into a round sphere of differing sizes depending on the size of the oyster it will be implanted into.
pearl xray machine
After the nucleus has been implanted the shells are housed in a panel and laid on the ocean floor where they will undergo a complex “turning” process to encourage the nucleus to be retained and for the development of a round pearl, the most valued. After this process each oyster is put through an x ray to check if it has retained the implanted nucleus. The ones that have will be suspended on long lines back in the panels hanging hinge side down to prevent the pearl from falling out. M
willy creek boat
We were taken out on this boat to the oysters hanging off the long lines
pearl tour
We were taken out by boat to the long lines and shown how the shells are cleaned every 2 weeks of marine growth that will stop a pearl from growing properly. This is very labour intensive work and is often done by backpackers in the very hottest months of the year where they must live for weeks on board a vessel made for this purpose.
recently cleaned oysters
Recently cleaned shells. The panels can have 32-40kgs of marine life growing on them before cleaning. They are then put back in the water.
opening an oyster
Anita our tour guide, opening an oyster will a small “keshi” pearl in it. This oyster was slightly diseased and so not growing quality pearls.
oyster natural
Here we are being shown the anatomy of an oyster. The pearl meat is often eaten marinated. It is also an aphrodesiac in asia
big pearl
This is an example of what can be grown in a happy, healthy oyster shell. Look at the size of this one! And they let me hold it! I wanted to put it in my pocket!!!!
oysters in frame just before harvest
Oysters about to be harvested still in their panel sitting hinge down to prevent the pearl from falling out.
pearl harvesting willie creek
We were lucky enough that it was actually the right time to harvest and we could see this being done by the technicians. Look at the already harvested pearls just laying around on the desk. These technicians are highly skilled and at one time only the Japanese knew how to perform this “operation”. Australian Lyndon Brown from Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm was the first non Japanese person to successfully culture pearls commercially in 1960. M
pearl surgeon
The technician is holding open the shell, and then making an incision into the oysters reproductive organ. They will then insert a small bead or nucleus and a small piece of nacre tissue from a donor oyster. This develops into a sac around the nucleus within the organ.
pearl surgery1
The oyster is opened slightly to be able to work inside it. I thought of my days working in an IVF clinic the whole time I was on this tour!
pearl coming out
We just happened to see the perfect situation on our tour. A very good pearl in terms of  shape, size, colour, lustre and completion is removed from an oyster by the technician. Not every pearl is like this. It is luck of the draw what nature provides once “man” has tried to control the process. Nature rules over man every time, which is why even a cultured pearl is amazing. Only 1 in 10,000 natural oysters will have a pearl and only a handful of those will be any good in terms of value. The numbers are higher for cultured pearls but nothing is sure until you open one up. It was really exciting to see the birth of a pearl. I couldn’t stop thinking about the IVF work I have done in the past watching this process. M
boxes with different sized nucleus
Different sizes of nucleus for implanting. These are made of shell material and polished into a round sphere.
nucleus going in
A nucleus being re implanted into an oyster that has just had a pearl removed. Not all oysters will produce again but some can be re implanted 2 or even 3 more times with 2 years to grow each pearl. The oyster is pretty tired after that!
pearls harvested with tools
Tools of the trade that look a bit dental and pearls just laying around in the top of a sharps bin. See the “keshi” pearl near the instuments. This is what can come out at harvest. This shape is said to be the most like a pearl produced by nature.
harvested pearls collected in a sharps bin
The same nice round nucleus is inserted but you are never sure what will come out in terms of size, shape, colour, complexion or lustre
measuring for value
A large pearl being measured to value it.
ear ring
This is the pearl that a sensible wife buys!

This was a really interesting tour and made me appreciate pearls even more. I also found out while in Broome that there is a pearl farm just north of Sydney in Broken Bay. They are growing Akoya pearls- the smaller and darker “Japanese” pearls. M

After the tour we had a look at the next creek to the south, Barred Creek and picked up another couple of new birds.

barred creek
Entry to Barred Creek

little beach

barred creek jabiru
Jabiru in Barred Creek
oyster rock
More oyster than rock

barred creek snuggle

american golden plover
Pacific golden plover
common sandpiper
Common sandpiper



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