Queensland – The Pearl Fisheries – The Great Barrier Reef

WE have come north to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, and are about to start on a long sea journey around the Australian continent. Brisbane is a fine city on the Brisbane River, eighteen miles from its mouth, but the stream is deep and there are ocean steamers at anchor right in the city. It is warm, and we are glad to keep under the awnings as we make our way from store to store laying in our supplies. We visit the public buildings and the mining museum, learning much of the re-sources of this part of the continent. Queensland is larger by half than all our Atlantic states, and although parts of it are desert, it has rich farms and pasture fields not far from the coast, and rich deposits of minerals, including gold and opals in the mountainous sections.

Taking ship, we steam down the river through Moreton Bay out into the Pacific Ocean, and then start northward through one of the most remarkable waterways of the world. This is the channel which lies between the coast and the Great Barrier Reef, a rocky wall which has been built up by the little coral animals for more than twelve hundred miles along the northeastern coast of Australia.

How smooth the water is ! We can not realize that we are on the ocean ; we seem to be in a mighty canal one side of which is the rocky continent of Australia and the other this vast wall built up from the bottom of the sea by countless millions of coral polyps.

The wall is from ten to seventy miles wide. In some places it just reaches the surface and can not be seen except at low tide ; at others it rises above the water in ridges and ragged rocks, sometimes forming gardens of pink, red, and white flowers, all of coral. Here real plants and trees have sprouted out of these stony gardens, and there the coral has been built up in great horseshoe rings with water inside them. Such rings are called atolls. Cocoanut trees, green grass, and beautiful flowers grow upon them, forming emerald rings surrounded by and inclosing the sapphire sea.

The Great Barrier Reef runs through the Pacific Ocean at a distance of from five to fifteen and more miles from the coast. At Rockhampton where we enter the channel it is about one hundred miles wide, but a little farther north it narrows, giving us quiet waters through which our steamer is plowing its way.

How delightful the journey is after our thirsty travels on land. The sun is hot, but the soft, cooling breezes of the Pacific come to us over the atolls. The air is as clear as on our Rocky Mountain Plateau. The sky is a light blue with a few clouds which make patches of velvet of a deeper blue, where their shadows fall upon the dreary gray mountains of the mainland. It reminds us of the Rockies, for nature here is much the same as in Arizona and Nevada.

Our first stop is at Townsville, a little city at the foot of bleak and bare hills. It is not unlike one of our western mining towns, save that it has more schools and more pleasure grounds. It is the chief port for the Charters Towers and -other gold regions and for the rich pasture lands behind it. How hot it is ! The people are dressed in light clothing. The children wear straw hats as big as parasols and go barefooted. We are now on the edge of tropical Australia, and it will grow hotter and hotter as we go farther north. On our continent the north lands are cold and the south lands hot. Why is it not so in Australia ? Look at your map ! Australia is south of the Equator, and its northern parts get the more direct rays of the sun.

At Cairns, still farther on, we -visit sugar and tobacco plantations, and enjoy the bananas and pineapples which are raised there for export to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and other towns of the south.

Calling at Cooktown, a pretty place at the foot of Grassy Hill which rises more than five hundred feet above it, we walk up Charlotte Street to visit the monument on the spot where Captain Cook beached his vessel. We then steam in and out among coral islands along Cape York At Cairns we visit sugar plantations.”

Peninsula, a vast barren tract five hundred miles long. On much of the coast there is nothing in sight but sand, rocks, and reddish brown cones, each of which is the home of thousands of ants. These little ant castles cover the land in some places. Each cone is composed of many cells or rooms rising floor above floor like the flats of a great apartment house ; some of the cones are twenty feet high. Australia has many kinds of ants, some red., some black, and some white. The white ants are wood eaters and they usually work away in the dark, eating the wood of a tree, post, or piece of furniture until only a shell is left.

More interesting to us just now are the little animals or polyps which have built up this great reef,’ and the coral islands which dot the Pacific Ocean both north and south of the Equator, and especially in the South Seas not far from where we are now. The coral polyp extracts lime from the salt water, and from this lime its minute coral skeleton is formed. The skeleton remains after the polyp is dead, other skeletons being added, either by its children or by other polyps ; and in time, by the work of millions of such little beings, these islands, reefs, gardens, and flowers of coral are built up out of the water. It is from lime that all sorts of shells are formed, including those of the pearl oyster and even the pearls themselves.

The coral islands and reefs are the favorite living places of this oyster. It will not thrive in the dirt, nor in any place where the tide moves the sand about. The pearl oyster fastens itself by a muscle, extending out near the hinge of the shell to the coral formations, often picking out caverns in the reef and caves under the water. If undisturbed it grows to an enormous size, the shells often being as large as the largest dinner plate and sometimes eighteen inches from one side to the other.

Pearls are found inside the shells and often in the flesh of the oysters, It is supposed that each is formed by a grain of sand or some other foreign substance getting inside the shell. This scratches the oyster, which at once begins to make a covering over it. The oyster exudes more and more carbonate of lime, painting the substance again and again until it becomes a smooth ball.

A pearl cut in two and put under the microscope shows concentric layers like an onion, and often a little hole in the center where the offending grain of sand or other sub-stance was.

Pearls are not always round. They are often pear shaped and sometimes of other forms. Round ones are the most valuable, the largest and brightest often selling for many thousands of dollars. The commoner kinds bring much less.

The shells of these oysters yield more money than the pearls themselves. Many oysters have no pearls, and in some the pearls are so small that they are comparatively worthless. But all oysters have shells, and the shells are of value in commerce. They are used for making buttons, knife handles, and other beautiful things. They are in such demand that men go out in boats to the coral reefs and islands about Australia and in the South Seas and dive down for them. They gather thousands of tons of them every year for export to Europe. Traders go from island to island buying shells of the natives, in exchange for tobacco, calico, and other goods. The shells are sold by weight, the best bringing as much as one thousand dollars per ton, while even the poor ones are worth getting.

Some of the best pearl-oyster grounds about Australia are off the northeastern coast in the very seas where we now are. We meet fishing boats as we steam northward, and upon rounding Cape York, we land at Thursday Island in Torres Strait, one of the headquarters of the pearl-fishing industry. Several fishing schooners lie at anchor inside the harbor, a steamer bound for Europe is taking on a cargo of shells, and pearl divers by the score are among the crowd of men of all nations which meets us as we step upon the pier.

Thursday Island is at one of the crossroads of the sea. Ships from India, China, and Japan stop here on their way to and from Australia, and we find people of almost every race in this part of the world. There are black men, brown men, and yellow men; some from Malaysia, some from China and Japan, and others from the islands about. There are also whites, for the island belongs to Queensland, and its magistrate is an Australian, as are also the soldiers in the barracks near by.

We take a stroll through the town, visit the warehouses where the shells are stored, and later on go out and watch the pearl fishers as they dive down after shells. The men are first clad in thick flannel, and then in diving suits which will keep out the water. Each suit has a metal head with glass at the front so that the man can see out, and a rubber tube so that fresh air from above can be constantly pumped into the suit. He has boots with heavy soles of copper or lead to enable him to sink, and a canvas bag for shells. Thus dressed he goes down to the bottom of the sea, and moves about where the pearl oysters are. He cuts them off from the rocks and puts them into his bag, being careful to avoid the fierce sharks which sometimes follow the boats, and also the great squid, a marine monster with long arms, which vomits a black fluid so discoloring the water that the man can not see and is liable to fall against the rocks.

When the divers come up, their bags are emptied. The shells are opened with a thin-bladed knife, not unlike a table knife, and the oysters taken out. They are carefully examined to see if they have pearls in them and then thrown away. This work is watched by the owners of the boats, for otherwise it would be easy for a man to steal pearls worth hundreds of dollars.