Brett Weingarth pulls up at the jetty in his boat. It’s an oversized oyster punt, flat-bottomed with a tiny cabin at the front.
Unlike the other punts on the water today, this one has a shade canopy with small international flags hanging off. Also, the light grey metal exterior has been painted over with a green camouflage pattern.
The boat looks a little out of place. A group of pelicans – eight of them sitting on a railing near the shore – pay it no attention, though.
Perhaps they don’t notice the strange markings. Or maybe they’re used to the boat.
Most likely, they’re more interested in what is beneath the surface of the water – a buffet of edibles waiting for them.
Today, that’s what I’m interested in as well… and Brett is here to show it all to me.
Brett runs a small company called Captain Sponge’s Magical Oyster Tours here on Pambula Lake, near Merimbula on the South Coast of New South Wales. It’s one of the last stops on my week-long road trip from Melbourne to Sydney.
As the name suggests, he takes visitors out on the lake and shows them a bit of the oyster industry that the region is famous for. When it comes to oyster farms, Brett is an expert.
Farming is what he’s been doing here for ten years. The tours are just something he likes running on the side.
“Years ago when I first started oyster farming, I thought ‘this is a really interesting industry, why isn’t somebody out there showing people how it works’,” he tells me.
“And as years went by I always thought that somebody would do it and nobody did so I thought maybe it’s something I should do. It’s not like I didn’t have enough to do already but I thought I’ll do this one too and I’m glad I did. I enjoy it.”
It’s a sunny day and it’s warm out on the water, even though we get a bit of a breeze as the boat moves across the lake. It’s easy to spot the areas that have been set aside for oyster farming – there are long trails of boxes floating on the surface – and we head towards one of them.
When we stop, Brett leans over the boat and pulls up one of the boxes of mesh. Inside, it’s full of oysters.
I ask Brett how many he farms each year.
“I myself do about 20,000 dozen,” he says.
“That’s probably an average for most one-man operations, I suppose. There’s more and there’s less, of course. Trying to get that up to 30,000 or 35,000 would be good – that’s my aim over the next few years.”
The oysters in this box look pretty much like the ones I see on plates at restaurants (not very often, I should point out – I’m not that fancy!).
But things are more complicated than I realise. You don’t just pull adult oysters out of the water without a lot of work beforehand.
“The first step we have as oyster farmers is to catch the oysters, so we put slats out in the river in January, February, March and we catch our baby oysters.”
“We leave those slats in until the babies are big enough to strip off at the age of 7 or 8 months – they will all be about the size of half your little fingernail. They go into a tumbler which is 3 millimetre mesh cylinder and from there we grade those oysters as they grow and put them into floating bags.”
Brett makes oyster farming sound fascinating – and, in many ways, it is. If you’re like me, you probably have a basic understanding of how things grow on farms on land… but water is so different. It’s something Brett is well aware of.
“I’ve always been interested in aquaculture,” he explains.
“I come from a dry land farming background so we had sheep, wheat, cattle and canola and all the crops you can imagine up at Cowra in Central West New South Wales.”
“So I was always interested in growing fish but I couldn’t grow fish because we didn’t have enough water out there and one thing led to another and we got to thinking about oysters and ended up down here buying an oyster farm and the rest is history, I suppose.”
Brett Weingarth and his young family moved to Pambula about ten years ago during the worst drought that New South Wales had experienced in a century. On the lake, he suddenly had plenty of water… but it’s not that simple. There are different challenges you need to deal with.
“Farming on water you are relying on people within the catchment to do the right thing, as far as pollution and that kind of thing goes,” Brett tells me.
“We rely on water quality so we do a lot of proactive work in the community, trying to safeguard our estuaries against things that would do them harm. It’s in our best interests to do that of course and it’s also in the best interests of the estuaries themselves, for the ecosystems within those estuaries.”
“So we like to think while we’re looking after ourselves, we’re looking after the other creatures who make this place their home as well.”
Oysters are like wine, in the sense that their taste is extremely dependent on the conditions they’re grown in. Pambula Lake oysters have a reputation for a smooth and subtle flavour that’s influenced by the fresh water coming down from the Pambula River and the salt water that comes in from the Pacific Ocean.
They are a popular product and most of them get sold quickly to the fish markets in Sydney or even abroad. Luckily for me, though, Brett has got some to taste (as, of course, he does on every tour).
It is a nice way to end a couple of hours of seeing the process that leads to this final product.
As I taste them (and they are delicious!), I ask Brett about what he hopes people like me get out of his tours.
“You do get to taste the best oysters in the world, that’s part of the bargain,” he laughs.
“But you also get to understand the oyster life cycle and how we farm the oysters from the very finest zygote that’s swimming around in the water through to the finished product that you see on the restaurant plates.”
I finish the tour with Brett with a new appreciation for oysters. Not just their taste, but the effort involved in farming them.
Captain Sponge’s Magical Oyster Tours promised something a bit different. What I’m unsure of is whether it’s the oysters or the tours that are magical.
How can you do an oyster tour near Merimbula?
The oyster tours are run regularly but you should get in contact in advance to find the exact days and times. It can change a bit depending on the season and availability. If there are enough of you in a group, it may be possible to run a private tour.
The tour takes about two hours. It starts from the Pambula Lake Jetty & Boat Ramp at “Broadwater” just off the Princes Hwy. You can see the location on a map here.
For more information and to book a tour, head to the official website.
How much does the oyster tour cost?
The tour costs $50 for adults and $30 for children aged up to 16 (under 5 years old is free). A concession costs $40 and you can get a family on the tour for just $140.
Where should you stay in Merimbula?
Although the tour is in Pambula, the best area to stay is in nearby Merimbula.
If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the friendly Wandarrah Lodge, which has dorm beds.
For a decent and affordable place, you could check out Black Dolphin Resort Motel.
If you’re travelling with kids or a large group, I would recommend the NRMA Merimbula Beach Holiday Park.
And if you feel like staying in a bungalow in a national park, have a look at the Woodbine Park Eco Cabins.