Pearling in Shark Bay

The Shark Bay pearl oyster (Pinctada albina) spawned a rush not unlike the gold rushes of the 1800s. Up for grabs were small, straw-coloured ‘seed’ pearls - a favourite in Asian markets - and pearl shell, used to make buttons in the days before plastic fasteners. Pearling began in the 1850s and reached its peak in the 1870s. It was hard work and in many cases, the cause of great suffering. Reminders of pearling days can be found all around Shark Bay - including the township of Denham.

Scraping up a living

Commercial harvesting began after a government official investigating Shark Bay’s guano industry saw the potential of Shark Bay’s prolific oyster banks. At low tide some shell could be picked by hand, or collected by divers. But a more efficient harvesting technique was dredging: dragging wire-meshed baskets across the banks behind a shallow draught, single-masted sailing boat. By 1873 about 80 boats worked the banks of Shark Bay.