I started shooting the story on pearl faming in New South Wales before I’d even signed the contract with the magazine. That was because a key event was happening immediately – an event that could not be rescheduled or wait for the convenience of a photographer — seeding the oysters.
On one beautiful warm morning, as the first flush of dawn peaked over the surrounding mangroves, a punt – a large, flat bottomed boat – pulled up to where I was waiting at a nondescript wharf in Woy Woy. (Yes, that really is the name of a town in NSW). The man at the tiller was rugged, decidedly handsome and what anyone would call “salt of the earth”. His rumpled shirt, sun-lined face and pure Aussie accent could have stepped out of the pages of an outback novel – definitely heart-pounding material.
But his appearance paled in comparison to the majesty of the morning. Brisbane Water, where the pearl farming takes place, is a large estuary. The coast of NSW is riddled with such “waters”. That’s what they call it here in Australia when a river is broken into channels and estuaries as it it meets the many dunes or barriers lining the Pacific coast. Many of these river mouths back up into lagoons with only a single narrow outlet to the ocean. Brisbane Water is one of these coastal lakes or lagoons. They are subject to tides and salt water incursions yet at the same time are protected from oceanic swells and stormy wavers.
Riding in the flat punt, the water like glass, the summer air like balm on my skin, I was one with the landscape and the bounty of wildlife living off these rich waters. I could safely call this moment the epitome of my existence. Nothing fulfils me as much as being so close to nature.
There is something so delightful, so special, to be part of this inner world. Sure, you could watch all the activity from the shore: pelicans fishing, swans and ducks bobbing, the sea eagle scouting, but I would still feel a bit of an outsider. Sitting in the middle of a punt makes it different. Here, in the middle of the lagoon, I feel a part of it all.
This feeling of being “on the inside” continued as we approached a tiny wharf and, from around a curtain of mangroves, a humble little shed appeared. Formerly used for edible oyster faming, it was hard to believe this shack was now the heart of a potentially lucrative pearl farming industry.
I couldn’t wait to discover what was inside and begin my work.