The Philippines- Deep in the Palawan
The Golden South Sea pearl farms are located all around the Palawan region of the Philippines. Filipinos come from all over the country to work on these farms and become part of these communities. These farms lay in some of the most beautiful and remote reaches of the world, but that doesn’t mean they are not in harm’s way. Over 70% of the coral reefs in this region have been destroyed by cyanide and dynamite fishermen. Pirates troll these seas and it is up to the pearl farmers to protect their surrounding waters. Jacques Christophe points the damage out to us while we are diving the edges of the concession of the farm, easily seen by the stark variation in coral. They measure the rise in Ph and salinity of the seas on a daily basis and are some of the first to feel the effects of global climate change and ocean acidification. Any minor change in the water can disturb the growing shells, so it is of upmost importance for them to protect as much of the ocean as possible; their livelihood depends on it.
As if those threats weren’t enough, recently the area has experienced heavy and deviating impacts from typhoons. The Power of Pearl crew was on the farms immediately after typhoon Haiyan hit and witnessed destruction in much of the area and surrounding villages. Trees had leveled houses, buildings were lifted from their foundations and carried away, and crops and livestock were wiped out in minutes. While the world’s attention was focused on larger cities like Tacloban and Cebu, the pearl farms were rebuilding for themselves. They were hard at work providing as much aid as possible to the surrounding villages and the 200 families reliant on the farm workers. The unique bond of the people on the farms and their unmatched spirit gives these communities a seemingly superhuman resilience that remains foreign to our society. Not only will they rebuild for themselves, but they will do it better, faster, stronger, and in a sustainable fashion.
Indonesia- Bali and Papua
The archipelago of Indonesia is comprised of 17,000 islands with over 580 different dialects and languages spoken amongst its residents. The country is filled with some of the most unique and diverse cultures left on the planet. Due to the size and remoteness of these islands, many of these elusive cultures are dying out. The adults have had to leave the unpopulated areas in search of work and education, leaving only the elderly and small children. When Atlas began pearl farming in Papua in 1994, the villages doubled in size within a few years. Mothers and fathers were able to return home to their families with work close by. The farm built schools on the island and provided generators and medical care. Even subsistence fisherman are able to make a good living because of increased biodiversity and fish count in the area. The farms respect the local traditions of the people and benefit exponentially.
Atlas’s farm in Bali is equally as diverse and unique. Located on the North coast of the Island, one must trek over volcanoes, through the rice terraces, and around the many temples of the island to get there. The local priests come down to bless the farm regularly and make offerings to the gods of the sea for protection of the workers. Incredible works of art and statues flock the walkways and guard the gates, creating an unparalleled working environment.
Australia- WA and the open ocean
North Western Australia has a lifestyle and method of pearling that remains completely unique to this region. Transient workers, “backpackers,” make up the multicultural and ever-changing Australian pearl farming communities. The farms are located out at sea, so these backpackers join the crew for 10-day stints aboard giant pearling vessels. The crews are made up of travelers from New Zealand, Russia, Europe, and east Asia. Aside from arguments over rugby matches, this multicultural community quickly forms tight bonds. The actual pearl farming practices take place on these ships. The boats troll divers all day long, picking up wild oysters, while the captain and deck hands sort and clean the shells and specially trained grafters perform the operations.
Australia also boasts a rich and adventurous history to its pearling legacy. The town of Broome was, and still remains, a hub of action amongst pearl divers, luggers, and anyone daring and foolish enough to seek their fortune in the pearling industry. This was before the invent of cultured pearls or even plastic, when mother of pearl was still being used for everything from buttons to hair combs. Japanese divers ruled the seas in their hardhat diving suits, going down on eight or nine dives a day. On the surface, the deck hands and captains hand-cranked air compressors while brave divers clunked around on the bottom of the sea in 200 lb. suits. Many of these men never returned to the surface, crippled by the bends, ravaged by tiger sharks, paralyzed by any number of the countless predators of the deep. Although modern pearl diving has gone through a technological overhaul, these threats still exist today. You can watch live dives from Australia on our diving page.