Small Planes & Large Pearls: The WA Pearl Farm Tour Said To Be “Priceless”
“See, it’s pretty easy,” smiled our pilot Nathan Levien, as he took back the controls of the propeller-powered Cessna Grand Caravan he had just let me fly. Little did I know that when I clambered into the front seat for our 45-minute charter flight from Broome to Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, I would soon be taking the yoke and guiding us through the air.
As the adrenaline from my very short stint as co-pilot subsided, I relaxed back into my seat and soaked in the aerial view of Western Australia’s Kimberley coast. It was hard to believe that the vibrant, contrasting colours on the other side of the window were real.
The iconic Kimberley trio of searing red earth, rich turquoise waters and brilliantly white beach isn’t something you get to see every day.
We circled over the colourful bays and lagoons before making our descent into Cygnet Bay. And as lined up to make our landing on a red dirt ‘runway’, Levien’s voice came over the headset again.
“I pride myself on my landings so let me know how you rate this one,” he said. After a smooth landing, an A+ rating seemed only adequate for his expert navigation of the rough, undulating dirt runway.
From the comfort of a small plane to a dusty outback bus, we bumped along a dirt track – the end of the same one that gets you from Broome to the farm in roughly 2.5 hours – to our final destination. We passed red-tinged trees, retired pearling apparatus and the village’s camping, glamping and pearler shack accommodation options before arriving at the remote Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm.
The farm, which sits on a blue-green bay along the Dampier Peninsula, 200kms north of Broome, is the region’s oldest cultured pearl farm. Founded in 1946 by Dean Brown, it was the first pearl farm to flourish without Japanese pearler aid. In fact, it was the first pearl farm outside of Japan to perfect the finicky pearl culturing technique thanks to the tireless research efforts of Brown’s son, Lyndon.
Though they don’t have the name and fame of other pearl companies like Paspaley, Willie Creek, or Kailis, Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm is considered one of the industry’s heavyweights. They were pioneers in the cultured pearl industry, and now, they are one of only three commercial pearl farms still in operation in Western Australia. Their defining moment came in 2004, when a world-record pearl was discovered off one of their oyster lines.
After 58 years of operation, Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm harvested what’s believed to be the world’s most valuable cultured pearl. Measuring in at 22.24mm in size (an average pearl is anywhere between 10 to 13mm in size), and with a rumoured value of over $1million, the colossal pearl thrust Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm into the spotlight.
After touring the pearling sheds with our guide and 4th generation pearler, Terry Hunter, the farm’s glistening pride and joy was put before us. Compared to the two 6mm pearls Hunter helped us uncover from retired oysters earlier in the tour, this record-making pearl was pure, lustrous perfection. Mounted proudly on a gold stand, the pearl remains a part of the Brown family private collection. It’s worth a fortune, but it isn’t Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm’s most valuable gem. Instead, his name is Bruce Wiggan.
Appointed as the farm’s cultural guide, Wiggan is considered the traditional custodian of the land on which Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm sits. With his long hair, iconic hand-decorated hat, and cheeky sense of humour, Wiggan captures the attention, and the hearts, of any visitor to the farm.
The son of one of the first Indigenous pearlers that worked alongside the farm’s founder, Wiggan has a long history with the farm and the land. He grew up on Sunday Island on the Buccaneer Archipelago, and took over the responsibilities of the land from his father. He lives, works, and creates on the land.
Over a lunch of fragrant, local barramundi and rice (a staple Japanese-Indigenous fusion dish) at the Cygnet Bay restaurant, Wiggan proudly showed us his catalogue of work.
Carved under a rickety old lean-to to the left of the main building, and sold at the on-site pearl gallery, Wiggan’s teardrop-shaped mother of pearl pieces are as rare as they are beautiful. There are only five Bardi men that still practice the ancient art of Riji, and Wiggan one of them.
“This one, for you, is $7 million,” joked Wiggan, as he handed us his latest patterned carving to pore over. Though officially valued anywhere between $600 to $700, Wiggan’s personal valuation has a touch of authenticity to it.
The rare artworks, steeped with history and tradition, are, in one sense, priceless. As we climbed back into our waiting Cessna, and taxied back down the red dirt runway, I couldn’t help but think, so too was the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm experience.
(Lead images: Monique Ceccato & Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm Facebook)
Published 06 December, 2019