Ladies there are just some jobs and some industries that are and always will be governed by men. The only way to overcome this, is to prove you are just as valuable as a guy.
Surrounded by nothing but ocean, there is no governing body out at sea to read you your rights, pat you on the back for speaking up, or get an encore for getting all bravado about women’s rights and equality. It really is a case of get busy working or get busy packing. And that’s exactly what I and everybody else has to do in the Paspaley fleet.
The job comes with a set of credentials and if you haven’t already ticked all the boxes, then you surly will by the end of it. Swollen hands, chipped fingernails, greasy skin, grazed forearms and the constant stench of shell on your skin. You may be asking, why oh why would you do such a job and I similarly asked myself the same thing over and over. But whilst a life as a Pearl Farmer is a challenging existence, it does offer some of its own treasures and I’m not just talking pearls.
For starters, words cannot describe the sight of your first Hump Back Whale and mine was one I’ll never forget. In the chaos of an afternoon at work, amidst a chipping and sorting shell frenzy, the heat a blistering 30+ degrees and the humidity, well even your eyelids are sweating, something suddenly caught my eye. To my disbelief the hump of an enormous whale had surfaced from the water and was hovering around the back deck of the boat. Was I seeing things? Nobody else had cared to look up, and there it was again. I screamed out, ‘whale, whale! People briefly turned and some even laughed, this was not their first sighting of course, in fact this was not even their second or third, this was not by any means unusual, we were floating in the middle of a whale migration route. My overwhelming excitement could have been mistaken for a child who had been given their first bite of chocolate, so just for a few moments I was excused from work to relish in my first whale encounter. The whale sightings became more frequent and I, always as excited as the first time I saw one. How could an animal like that ever get boring? We were the unlikely backpackers getting a first class seat, to an unlikely sighting of spectacular marine life and the best part, it was all for free.
Whales, turtles, sharks and dolphins were all frequent visitors to the boat. At night you could often catch a school of dolphins feeding at the back deck, dancing in and out of the current, putting on a fantastic display for us. Sharks for me were even more fascinating, circling the boat over and over, the boys would tease them with tuna heads and left over meat, bringing them closer to the ship, close enough to see them smile.
Of course it’s not just breathtaking nature that marks this job as completely unique but its the lifestyle, the people and of course the exclusiveness of our floating home. As I mentioned before there are some typical seaman characters and if you were to write a comedy sketch, they would certainly make a feature. Tomo, how can I not mention Tomo? Imagine your typical Ozi guy and times it by 100. Tomo loves his country and is a proud Northern Territory kinda guy, branded by his Australian tattoos, stamped across his arms, a constant reminder that not only is he Ozi, but Ozi and proud. There are plenty of amusing tales I could share with you about Tomo, one involving a lighter, a crate of beers and the stench of burnt hair but unfortunately for you readers, well you had to be there to see it, some things just can’t be shared. It was however, a Tomo spectacle and they don’t come more spectacular than Tomo. Working with Tomo was mostly a pleasure, as long as Tomo liked you, you were safe and if he didn’t, keep your head down and hope for the best. In the early days Tomo was mostly chilled and content, originally a member of the Montoro Fleet but unfortunately for him in the season of 2017, he was moved to the Pas 4, branded to outsiders as the ‘slave ship.’ It was a tough season, way harder than that of our first and it got the better of some people. During an eight hour depaneling and chipping session, I’m almost certain I caught him talking to himself, dazed and consumed by an altogether separate world to ours, well after all, who can blame the guy? I’d rather have imagined myself anywhere else in the world, other than that processing table.
And then there’s Jonny and Joey, the double act, the two amigos, the smokey Joes and the annoyingly likeable guys. Always chuffing on a rolly and as soon as the call came, ‘knock off guys,’ well they sparked a rolly and cracked a cold one.
Then there’s Rick, our other Skipper, a Paspaley veteran and our tour guide. You can count on Rick to cease an opportunity and if you’re loyal, work hard and get your head down, you can guarantee you’ve made a friend. There’s plenty of fond memories with Rick, in particular my birthday tour of Jar Island, in the Kimberly region. It was the perfect birthday present, exploring the surrounding area with the best of friends, visiting a World War Two plane wreck, not to mention the three bars of Cadbury chocolate he left in my room on my 30th birthday, its moments like that, that make it all worthwhile.
And of course I must mention, Mikey, Grigor, Grige, or whatever you like to call him. It took me the best part of my first season to work out how to say ‘Grige’ properly and when the season came to the end , well he was ranked comfortably in my top five favourites of the Paspaley crew. Second in command on the ship and although you knew he was in charge, you could breathe easy around him. What became apparent is Mikey had a taste for the finer things, fine dining, smart clothes, flash shades and when he would pull up next to the ship after his two weeks of RTO, wearing his Tom Fords and a crisp white T, it occurred to me that although Mikey was a seaman at heart, he was a city boy by taste.
Then there’s the girls, your skin and blister, your agony aunts, your gossip queens. In my first season there were plenty of girls and there was never a dull moment, we chatted, gossiped, chatted some more, laughed and even managed to fit in some gym sessions together.
Life became so bizarre on the Pas 4, that it was normal to behave eccentric, barking like a dog, eating sunscreen for money, wagering for dinner duty and various other bizarre and imaginative forms of entertainment.
In 2017 there were less girls, but we were still a team of girl power, essential cogs in the Paspaley fleet. When turning 30 on the ship the girls braced me for the initial farewell to my dear and wonderful twenties, spoiling me and gently humouring me, ’30s is where the magic happens’ they said, thank you Becky, Sarah and Kailah, I’ll forever remember you for that.
This was much the routine on the Pas 4, work, eat, fish, drink, repeat. The laughs and banter between the crew was plentiful and you could always rely on some to brighten the day. Imagine this, four people in a tank full of 5000 shell, waiting to be opened. No proper air flow and no windows, suffocating heat, where dehydration can get hold of you quickly. Wearing not much more than a sports bra, leggings and wellies, well, it’s like the hottest rave you’ve ever been to, but hotter. Sweat crawls down your back, down between your boobs, between all the wrong cracks, it’s a sweatbox full of half naked bodies, minus the heavy beats and the chemical treats. Yet not all is lost in the hull of the ship, because opening shell for nine hours a day comes with its benefits. Trent, Sarah, the Greek, Jack and me, were, in our finest hours a team of opening mechanics, working against the clock in adjacent to our rival fellows in the opposite tank, to get shell, after shell, after shell, after shell, opened. To break up the longevity of the day we would listen to the Greeks music, a collaboration of Abba, S-Club 7, hard EDM and on occasions a classic Wham track. Whenever a spare moment, we would take opportunity to head bang, cut a tune or even master a band, the Greek stealing the show with his theatrical ways. The Greek was an unusual character for a ship full of inflated egos, his eccentric ways set him apart from the regular crew and whilst he didn’t quite fit the part, he nevertheless prided himself on his originality.
Above us, the sound of Abba was drowned out by the sound of crew killing shell for hours upon hours, a conveyor of shell transported into a high maintenance cleaner and the meat that was once inside, now carefully carved, ready to be packaged and sold. This process continues until every shell is ether opened or killed and every day there is 10,000 of them, the hours and work is relentless and if there’s an implication, then the hours seem to never end. All this is preparation for the afternoons work, when like every other day in Harvest, another 10,000 shell will arrive and we all muscle in, for yet another afternoon at the depanel parade. The shell is then loaded into wiries, an open top, ten pocket type of cage, securing each shell upright, ready for the openers to begin their work the following day.
Before this however, the shell must be loaded into the tanks and it’s a job no one really wants. The burden is rotated between the openers and there’s always one who is an exception, the excuse maker and considered the special one. Alex, the kinda guy who can crush you in a single sentence, has the manners of a school kid and the work ethic of….. well let’s just say he cuts the mustard when he has to. Alex and I had our fair share of squabbles and mostly they were work related, mostly. Enemies in my first season but 2017 bought prosperity between us until it came to tank loading. Tank loading is not for the weak, its heavy, it’s hot and it’s fast and the Canadian new how to dodge a bullet. He appointed himself, most days, to send the wiries down to the loader in the depths of the tanks, one of the easier jobs on the boat. The loader controls the pace of the loading and when the demand is high, Alex loads them down like rockets. Bang! Bang! Bang! if you don’t move fast you’re miss the catapults firing down the slide and if you miss it, the sound of shell against metal echoes throughout the boat. It took Alex nearly a whole season to get his small bum down the tank to load and there he loaded four whole tanks, just as the naughty kid should.
I suppose you can’t be friends with everybody and I certainly, am not always at the top of people’s Christmas card list. But what becomes apparent is minor squabbles on deck, are surely forgotten once the ‘knock off call’ comes. Viktor, my good Swedish friend, a diamond to hang out with but a Hitler to work with. The guy claims to be 29 but really is 30 plus. His unique ways brand him as the ‘grandad’ of the ship, getting up an hour earlier than everyone else to indulge in some quiet time, whilst revelling in the first coffee of the day in his very own Viktor, coffee cup. However, don’t underestimate the power of the cup, you must be ready to sacrifice your life, bowel down in shame and prey to the gods for forgiveness if you ever, mistakenly or knowingly drink from that cup! And don’t get me started on his drinks canister! Viktor is a guy very much set in his ways, a man of few words and concealed by his Terminator style shades, you’re never quite sure what he’s conspiring and if you’re caught slacking, chatting or taking a casual minute, watch you don’t face the wrath of Viktor, he may just send a few shells hurtling your way! Despite his unpredictable mood swings, Viktor and his one of a kind girlfriend Nobu, a Japanese workaholic, are the very best companions and whilst work is work, friends will always be friends and I wasn’t about to give up my favourite sparring partner on the boat!
I also must mention Takenobu, our beloved technician leader and pearl enthusiast. He’s the head technician of the fleet, supervising his extensive crew of merry Japanese men. Operating on shell is a competitive game, the Pearling masters are, it seems, in competition with each other, each looking for a top ranking place on the daily ‘operated shell’ leaderboard. Unfortunately it is prohibited to take pictures in the Operations Room, a blinding white room, very much like a science lab, where the technicians where white lab coats and sit at a an operating station, complete with dentist light, running fresh water and the necessary utensils. It’s quite something when you see it for the first time and like any operation theatres, there is no chance for fun and games. It takes a while for the technicians to warm to you, it’s not a instant bond and it’s a relationship built on time and hard work. After a few rounds in the Ops room, your reputation can proceed you and sooner or later you find yourself cracking jokes and even humouring them. My favourite of course was Taky, we often enjoyed a glass of red on a Sunday evening, watching the sun set and even during work there was time to have a quick gossip and shot a few smiles and private jokes. It’s an unlikely collaboration of nationalities in such close living quarters but it works, creating a family type aura amongst the ship. I found a good friend in Taky, my Japanese Pearling master and an even better date for dinner.
As promised, I couldn’t finish this piece without mentioning Tommy, the Darth Vader of the Pas 4.
People actually move out the way of Tommy, change jobs, be excused to the toilet and even eat outside at mealtimes, just to escape a standoff with the Irish. Of course how could I escape a run in with the boat’s biggest villain and unlucky for me my time came, after a few too many cold ones and a discussion about internet dating. Turns out the guy is sexually frustrated and on a floating prison with little time for such after hours activities, frustration can boil up, I can’t be blamed for such problems! Despite our petty squabbles, a peace treaty was called and I, after swearing to never work with the Irish again, managed to survive a whole season without any further squabbles. Whether you feared, loved or despised Tommy, you could guarantee things got done quicker when he was around, it was like people sniffed a line of cocaine, his presence evoked a sense of urgency and people literally catapulted into military mode, chipping, sorting, cleaning and moving 100miles an hour quicker. So I guess the answer is, work hard and the Irish will leave you alone, slack off, appear weak, gossip too much and you may just want to sleep with one eye open.
Our time on the Pas 4 in 2016 was fairly kind to us. Apart from beginners bad luck, we settled in well, making new pals. We enjoyed our new found friends, a concoction of Ozis and English with a drop of Estonian, a splash of Japanese, twisted with a touch of Swedish, a bite of Canadian, a warmth of a Kiwi, the heart of an Italian and a sharpness of the Irish. We hung out after work and on our days off, we made the most of our freedom together.
On the boat, such a close nit environment played out much the same way as university life does, a calaboration of people bought together by our common interest in Pearl Farming but of course there was plenty other interests within the crew, ones that evoked more drama than that of pearls. I would have to start an altogether new blog, headed ‘romances and bromances,’ to elaborate further on the Paspaley after hours gossip, unfortunately there just isn’t the time.
In 2017 there was less time, or effort for such after hours activities. Days were longer, work was harder and the main gossip of the boat circulated around what time we would knock off that day.
But there were moments, days, people and sights that I will forever remember. My very first sight of the Kimberly’s, my first pick up, my first sunset, sunrise and moonrise. My first argument, my first day of opening shell, my first night watch, Harry’s first catch, he’s second, his third and the fourth.
And of course, not forgetting the VIP trip. The VIP trip is an extreme contrast to our daily routine, for starters there is no 4:30am wake ups and the sight of a shell is rare. In fact the boat is turned into a cruise like vessel, accomodating some of Paspaley’s biggest spenders. They are invited on board for a luxurious cruise around the Kimberly region and us, the selected lucky few, are their waitresses and waiters, tour guides and helpers, cleaners and cocktail makers. Whilst we pander to the VIP guests, admiring their pearls and riches, we also reap the benefits of some breathtaking views. The Kimberly’s, in my opinion, is one of Australia’s gems, it’s a secret hideaway of breathtaking views, caverns, waterfalls and coral reefs and unless you’ve come to Australia with a fat budget, then you may as well just view it’s marvels on google images. Or, alternatively just look at mine.
In contrast to that is a far less glamorous, more frequent endeavour and that is Pick Up. A task operated daily by a selected few of the crew. Those few are rotated, accept for for the Skipper and the First Mate. Every year there’s a lot of discussion about who will be First Mate of the Vansittart vessel and in 2017 it was Harry’s time. The Ringo was chuffed to bits, a backpacker with a promotion and it was one of the best, a break from the Pas 4, gets to bark orders at a group of deckhands and the best bit, he was ranked higher than me. So when the time came, Harry would take charge of us peasant deckhands whilst we ran an operational Pick-up. The task is to set off in the morning on a far smaller vessel, the Vansittart, steam for an hour or so, to where the shell farms are and collect around 10,000 shell. The collection of the shell is a process of winching, plucking, cleaning, sorting, stacking, tying and untying ropes, craning and to help you imagine some of these better, I’ll elaborate further….Harry operates a winch, which halls the line up and attached to it are panels of shell. As the line comes closer to the boat, a deckhand will pluck the panel from the line and advance it under their arm to the next deckhand, who will cut any fishery tags and push the panel through a high powered cleaner.
On the other side two further deckhands will wait, one will cut any remaining cable ties and will then pass two panels at a time to the remaining deckhand, who will, in their best efforts, stack the panels upright across the breadth of the boat. The system is fast and relentless and in order to process 1200 panels, there’s no time to be waisted. Again this process is far more technical than the ‘step-by-step,’ more simplistic procedure that I have explained for your benefit. It’s furthermore heavy and physical and often endured against extreme heat, ripping currents and rough oceans and you spend most of the process covered in sludge that came from the bottom of the ocean. It’s not your finest hour!
Pick- up happens during the Operations period, during Harvest our fellow Farmies deliver the goods. It’s like most other procedures on the boat, a team effort and every individual plays an important role, one man down and the system breaks down. My first pickup of 2017 was a memorable one, it was rough, it was hectic and the crew were new, so the job was slow. Lucky for us we had Chris Read that day, the biggest of all deckhands, standing around six foot four and a competent member of the crew. But on a rough sea it doesn’t matter how much you lift or how big you are, the elements can get the better of you. Chris began to slack off, rolling a little and stumbling. Patience we reminded ourselves, but there is little time for such virtues on such a demanding job as this, the weakest of the pack ultimately holds the rest back and so we were wasting time. At first we thought he was being melodramatic, putting on a display of, ‘oh woah is me,’ but then it started, the groaning and the moaning, the stuttering and slurring, his panel stacking was a abysmal and he just got louder and louder until…… He threw his head over the side of the boat and there it unfolded, a scene from the exorcist, a unique display of projectile vomiting, getting more theatrical and more violent with every episode. We half laughed half cringed, the guys once sturdy legs were now Bambi like and his complexion, a pale green. He fought on, vomiting in between every few panels and when we thought he couldn’t possibly bring up anything else, he continued to vomit some more. When we pulled back alongside the Pas 4, Chris got off a broken man but nevertheless, valiant in his efforts to persevere and complete his very first pick-up.
So like I said being a Pearl Farmer is quite a unique job. Despite all the moans and groans, it is, overall an experience I shall never forget, a highlight in my backpacking years, that for other people who mostly still think Harry and I are diving looking for pearls, the reality is something quite different. We have made some amazing friends and to try and narrow twelve months, two seasons, several drunken nights out, four hostels, two different vessels, countless pick-ups, a few petty squabbles, a promotion, a knock-out involving a 20kg plate, over 100 muffins, 1000 strong coffees, one lost fingernail, 2000 plucked panels, some where in the thousands of opened shell, a few cold ones on the back deck and some amazing memories, well it means this blog might never end.
Thank you Paspaley for an unforgettable adventure.