On the southern tip of Myanmar, a tiny, colourless town, Kawthaung, looks out towards paradise. This the beginning of the Mergui Archipelago, a system of 800 coral islands set over 1,000 kilometers. It’s home to the Moken, ‘Sea Gypsies’ and where Belpearl threw open their doors to welcome travelers to visit their pearl farm on the remote Golden Island.
In 2014 brothers Michael and Sarkis Hajjar took the risk of a lifetime becoming one of Myanmar’s first private companies with permission to build a pearl farm, Belpearl.
With a commitment to sustaining a healthy, symbiotic relationship between science and nature Belpearl has edged a reputation for producing the largest pearls possible with a lustre that’s the envy of the world.
In 2019 the brothers tiptoed deeper into the venture, joining an exclusive pilot program, where travelers could visit their farm on Shwe Kyun, or Golden Island. It’s no financial risk, but care needs to be taken to protect the ecosystem from being tipped out of balance, endangering the Oysters.
For tourists, visiting the farm is a unique experience to an idyllic tropical island and to witness the seeding of a pearl, Oyster Hatcheries and swim in the turquoise ocean.
As the boat rocks towards the concrete pier of Shwe Kyun there’s that sense of isolation. Only a few huts are visible, built under the shadow of the jungle that flows almost onto the pristine beach.
Formally a Captain Mariner, Than SoeWin, is Belpearl’s Manager, and holds extensive knowledge of the industry, what he doesn’t know, one of his 100 staff certainly will.
The tour begins in the sorting room.
Over one, very large, table for two weeks the pearls are carefully removed, to be sorted first by size, then shape, color, and lustre. “Twice a year we extract 3000 pearls each day for at least two weeks, so annually we produce around 80,000.” said SoeWin.
Big white shinny wellington boots wait to be worn outside the seeding room as the concrete floor is covered in water that’s been siphoned away from trays filled with oysters.
Naturally an oyster shell will open to feed when the tide is low, this is a quiet, safe time. So similar conditions are created artificially.
Once open the oysters are placed in seeding clamps. With tweezers the specialist seeder places a tiny spherical ball, or nucleus, made of shell into the oyster. With skill, a seeder has a 75% success rate of positioning the seed to create a round pearl, the most valued shape of all.
Normally, if nature is left untampered the color of the inner lip of an Oyster shell will determine the color of the pearl, a deep golden lip is likely to create a golden pearl. However results are never guaranteed, and until the pearl is harvested the true color will never be known.
Of all the rooms the most mysterious is the hatchery. A huge transparent tub of clear water explodes into life as a torch light shines through the liquid. Tiny little dots, Oyster Spats (babies), are left to grow for eight days floating arbitrarily while gorging on the plankton sucked up from the water.
After a week a long strip of rope is submerged into the tub, and by some miracle those tiny dots, barely visible to the naked eye nest between the threads.
From 28 days old the Oysters, now 10 millimeters long, will be taken and dangled into the ocean.
The best of the tour is left to last. A narrow boat dodges between 350 lines to watch as workers raise the Oysters and have the barnacles removed. “They’re put through something like a car wash,” said Sarkis.
Further afield a floating shed pops up and down with the waves.
As visitors stumble onto the shed’s platform ten or so workers, with warm smiles try to explain their trade while squatting around plastic pools preparing the juvenile oysters for their life in the sea.
The Oyster Farm’s Dilemma.
While Shwe Kyun is paradise, the pearl industry is high risk. Last year a mysterious bacterium killed 20% of Belpearl’s animals. It was a tragic and heart-breaking loss.
Along with Kawthaung’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, Belpearls is concerned about a potential imbalance between local industries.
“Logging, Tourism and Fishing are the largest industries in Kawthaung,” said Ar Kar Htun, Assistant Director, Ministry of Hotel and Tourism, Kawthaung. “Overfishing is a major concern to the government. Industry and environmental needs must be balanced, and for this we are developing a strategic plan.”
For Belpearl the danger is tourist boats zigzagging around the farm infusing pollutants and noise into the water. In one case a boat ripped through oyster lines setting the creatures adrift onto the coral.
“There is only one path”, says Michael, “We have to keep the journey to Shwe Kyun unique and exclusive. It’s just the way it is.”
How To Visit A Pearl Farm
Sail for 4 days in a luxury Yacht through the Mergui Archipelago islands, to snorkel, relax and visit Belpearls. https://www.burmaboating.com
Andaman Pearls are exploring the option of opening to tourists. https://www.facebook.com/Myanmar-Andaman-Pearl-Farm-1411117942482834
Have you been to a pearl farm? Which One, how did you arrange the tour, what was your experience?
Photos by Mary Banfield.