Sometimes, late at night, the only other fishers around in the Sound are Grievous, and Gawain checking his leatherjacket pots. Catching leatheries is not his day job though. Gawain is also the director of a local seafood company. I see Gawain and Kilpatrick at the Sunday markets every week but the source of the creamy, salty oysters that they sell has always been a bit of a mystery to me.
The first time I saw the oyster farm I thought it was conglomerates of old wire fences that a farmer had built into the sea to stop cows from crossing paddocks along the beach. I had no idea it was an oyster farm. Then, one morning picking up nets on the east side of the harbour, I saw the barge out there and the figures of men in bright orange rain coats moving about the ‘fences’.
I asked Gawain if I could go out on the barge with them and he rang me at six o’clock one morning. “We’re leaving in twenty minutes, Sarah. Are you coming out?”
I drove down to the Emu Point ship yards where ancient wooden boats lined up with newer steel jobs, past the seafood restaurant, the chandler’s shop and the slipway manager’s sheds. Gawain had the tractor hooked up to the barge. Men donned wetsuits, getting ready for the trip.
“Sarah, have you met Diesel?” Gawain introduced me to the crew: Diesel, a bluff, hulking, fisherman sort, Turk, tattooed with sunnies and a long beard, Jason whippet lean in his sealskin, beanie and sunnies. The two German backpackers in bright orange sou-westers, Chris and John, nodded hello. Kilpatrick was staying to shuck in the shed.
“Where’s yer boots?” Diesel said to one of the Germans. “You got any gumboots mate?” He looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Wellingtons? Galoshes? Ahh. Whatever. You right then, everyone? Ready. Let’s go.”
Once the boat was launched, Gawain jumped in and Diesel dropped the propeller and started her up. We backed into the shallow waters around the service jetty. “Tide’s still going down,” muttered Diesel. “Better get a move on.” Despite the early hour, a wind blew in from the east. Two men stood in the water on the sand bar with fishing rods. We motored towards Green Island.
Diesel and Turk lit up tailermades in shelter of the cabin and then put on their white cotton gloves. Diesel looked like he had always been a fisherman. He has been working the oysters for ten years now but before that he was a diesel mechanic. I looked at his boots. He wore diving boots with white gumboot tops elastic banded around them, like gaiters. “What are they all about?” I asked him.
“I invented them myself,” he said. “You see, all the stingray wounds I’ve ever heard of go in at the ankle or the top of the foot, or the sides. Never the bottom. So this is my protection. Don’t know if the theory’s right but I’ve never been barbed yet.”
“We get those little purple stingrays,” Gawain explained to me. “those buggers with the pink undersides. They’re the worst ones.”
The men shuddered in unison. “We don’t talk about cobbler.”
The oyster racks are lined up in hundreds of rows in the still shallow waters of the eastern side. There is something very beautiful about their barnacled repetitions. Held together with sticks the size of tomato stakes, black rubber bands and rope, the racks reminded me of bamboo pathways through some kind of Asian water village. Their rickety regularity and the olive-hued beauty of tidal Oyster Harbour make the structures a kind of art.
The barge was loaded with seeper cages of oysters that had already been graded for size and were being returned to the racks. Diesel steered the barge into a channel just wide enough and killed the motor.
“Watch out for blue rings,” warned Gawain.
I’d forgotten all about the blue ringed octopus. When we were kids swimming at Emu Point, much mention was made not to fiddle with underwater containers or grottos where the deadly critters lived.
“Do you get many here?”
“Yeah, we get a few. Years ago, we were getting ten, twenty a day in the cages. Bloody awful. Then that hundred year flood came through. Remember that? All the fresh water coming out of the rivers got rid of them. But they’re coming back now.”
Diesel, Turk, Chris and Gawain jumped overboard into knee-deep water. Chris held the barge in position against the wind. Jason stayed on the deck with John and started throwing out the seeper cages to them. The three waders clipped the cages full of oysters onto the racks.
“Hey, Gawain, did I tell yer about my blue ring dream?”
I would not recognise Jason is his civvies. His wetsuit, beanie and sunglasses made him a deckie creature. “The night after I got that one on me leg, I dreamt there was one on me arm and I kept trying to shake it off, flaring up its bastard rings all blue at me. Shit. What a dream.”
“Sounds like a nightmare,” Gawain sighed over a broken seeper cage clip and said, “lacky band, please.”
“Oh, nah,” Jason said, handing him an elastic. “Nah, just a dream.”
“I’ve never seen one before, and I’ve lived here all my life,” I said.
Turk handed me a stake with a blue ringed octopus clinging to it. “Here’s one.” The tiny, slimy creature with electric blue marks jumped off the stick and slid into the sea around the legs of the men.
“Lacky band, please.”
The deckies threw the seeper cages and lacky bands to the waders until the deck was clear except for remnants of broken cages, barnacles and algae. Turk kept straightening up in the water and rubbing the small of his spine. I could see he suffered the same back as Salt. Once the seeper cages were done, the oystermen turned to harvesting. Diesel started up the motor again and moved the barge into another row further to the west, where the burnt out hill loomed brindle against silver water. He dropped into the water and counted the oysters in a random tray. “Forty five.”
Some swift mathematics flew around between the crew.
“Forty five per unit?”
“Fifty dozen times four dozen is ...” Jason was onto it.
“Nah, fifty times forty five!”
It was all too fast for me. Within minutes the crew worked out how many units they needed to load for the Perth markets.
Black bream swum around Turk’s feet, feeding on the nutrients that his movements were stirring up, amongst the ferny brown weed and sea grass. “They’re a good size too. Should get that line out!”
“Turk, you gotta fisherwoman on board! Don’t tell her where the bream are.”
“Do you chuck a line in ever?” I asked, trying not to eye those fat bream any more than was respectable.
“Nah,” Turk said, grinning at his boss. “We’re here to work mate, not go fishing.”
After about forty minutes of throwing up racks of oysters to the men on board, who stacked them neatly against the cabin, the day’s quota was fulfilled. By then the wind and the sun had opened up the clouds. The men climbed into the boat and Diesel started up the motor again.
“What species are they, these oysters?”
“Sydney rock oysters. They don’t spawn in these cold waters, so they don’t get away. We’re not allowed to use Pacific oysters here because they might get away. But South Australia uses them, so I dunno. These ones we are bringing in now, they’re bistro oysters, a bit smaller. They’ll get graded and sent off today.”
“These are from Carnarvon aren’t they?” Diesel asked Gawain.
“Sydney rock oysters from Carnarvon?”
“Yeah, I think they got bred up there.”
“How many did you pick up today?”
“Two thousand dozen.”
Diesel found his shucking knife. “Grab one of those things.”
I picked out a nice fat oyster. He prised it open while Turk held the steering wheel for him, flicked the top shell overboard and turned the oyster flesh over in its base. Then he handed it to me.
There is nothing quite like a fresh oyster, with the liquor still liquoring and that salty sweet creaminess all going on ... wowwee
Back at the boat yards, Gawain backed the tractor down to the ramp and Diesel drove the boat straight on to the jinker. The others piled out and headed for the hose, past the neatly swept piles of barnacle shells below the sorting racks, to rinse off their gear before their nine o’clock coffee break.