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Notes from an author: Lizzie Pook on Western Australia's intriguing pearl-diving heritage

Home to milky, turquoise seas and wild, red landscapes, the Kimberley Coast is shaped by hair-raising tales of the hunt for treasured pearl shells.

By Lizzie Pook
Published 11 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT
Lizzie Pook is the author of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, published by Mantle.

Lizzie Pook is the author of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, published by Mantle.

Photograph by Lizzie Pook

It didn’t take long for the red dirt to find its way under my fingernails. As we drove the unsealed bush track — dodging wild donkeys, bath-sized potholes and scavenging eagles — I picked it out carefully and crushed it like confetti into my palm. Glancing out of the window at spindly gums and bristling swathes of speargrass, the high sun cast bold, black shadows onto the road. Little did I know, this red-dust land would have me in its thrall for the next 10 years.       

The Dampier Peninsula — a pyramid-shaped landmass that pierces the ocean off Australia’s northwest Kimberley coast — is simply crawling with stories. From dinosaur footprints and Aboriginal creation myths to fabled shipwrecks and tales of adventure, hubris and peril, there’s history woven into this landscape. 

When I think of that first journey now, the memories come in technicolour, shifting like mirrors in a kaleidoscope: cliffs as red as old, dried blood sheering into milky, turquoise seas; sharks, snubfin dolphins and crocs patrolling the mangroves while jabiru storks leave fork-like prints on the beaches. 

But while the peninsula’s natural beauty is sublime, it’s a hidden human history that lured me back to this part of Western Australia. Because this is a land of pearls; a place where, centuries ago, men walked the seabed and prised from the sands shells the size of soup plates. In the late 19th century, the township of Broome — due south of Dampier along that red-dirt bush track — became the nucleus of a dangerous and often brutal industry. Ever since I first held a freshly harvested pearl — shimmering like an eyeball between my fingertips — I had to learn more about these treasures. Over time, this interest became an obsession — one that’s had me ploughing through dusty museum archives, walking the landscape with guides and, ultimately, writing a novel inspired by the stories I uncovered.  

“My memories of that first journey shift like mirrors in a kaleidoscope: cliffs as red as old, dried blood sheering into milky, turquoise seas; sharks, snubfin dolphins and crocs patrolling the mangroves while storks leave fork-like prints on the beaches.”

by Lizzie Pook

Historically, humans have put their lives on the line for pearls — just as they have for gold, diamonds and other treasures snatched from the earth. But in Broome and along the Dampier Peninsula, pearl-diving crews took their pursuit to the extreme, battling storms, sharks and decompression sickness to unearth their quarry. Just like with America’s Gold Rush, the lure of the valuable pearl shell — for it was the ‘mother of pearl’ shell and not the pearl itself that was initially prized — drew all strata of society to Broome. Colonists, convicts, whalers, merchant seamen and immigrant workers all gave this remote township a rich, swaggering texture. 

Crews would push their wooden luggers through mangrove swamps and out to sea, the jagged reefs scraping the bottom of their hulls. They’d spend weeks out on their boats among rip tides and swirling currents, descending to the seabed in claustrophobic hardhat diving suits and lead boots. With netted bags strung around their necks they’d bring up piles of weed-encrusted pearl shells, which would be cleaned and shipped off to America and Europe to be turned into buttons and pretty pistol handles. ‘Diver’s paralysis’ (now known as ‘the bends’) meant men were often pulled up injured, their eyes popping out. And they faced other dangers of the deep, too — stalking saltwater crocodiles, deadly sea snakes and whales, whose clumsy flukes could become entangled in their air lines. 

A poignant monument now overlooks the water near Broome: a statue of a pregnant Aboriginal pearl diver bursting from the sea with a shell in her palms. It’s a stark reminder that early pearling was an exploitative industry, one that relied on the forced labour of indentured and indigenous workers (even pregnant women, favoured for their supposedly increased lung capacity). 

If you ever do find your way to Broome, hire a car and take the trip up the long bush road between Dampier and Broome. Pay a visit to the Beagle Bay community (it’s respectful to call ahead before visiting) and knock on the door to the Sacred Heart Church. Step inside, and you’ll find the most exquisite altar. Built by hand by local Aboriginal women, it’s inlaid with thousands of shimmering mother of pearl shells — a dazzling glimpse of the treasures found on these shores, but most importantly, a reminder of the buried stories they hold within them.

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, by Lizzie Pook, is published by Mantle, £14.99

Follow Lizzie on Twitter @lizziepook

Discover more stories from our Notes from an author series

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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