My daughter throws a pebble into the water, sending a surge of ripples across the lake. She giggles at the patterns emerging, then quickly moves onto something else – she's seen glossy-black oyster shells poking out of the lake's surface and wants to take a closer look.
My husband, daughter and I are waiting for our Captain Sponge's Magical Oyster Tours pick up, and, right on time, a small boat gently pulls into shore. Brett Weingarth, aka "Captain Sponge", greets us with a big smile and a loud hello. We're the only ones jumping on board today and straightaway he notes our daughter's fascination with the oysters.
"Looks like you'll all enjoy the tour," he says with a laugh.
We will be spending the next two hours cruising along Pambula Lake, visiting some of Brett's oyster farms (he has about 11 acres of oyster lease spread out over Pambula Lake and the nearby Merimbula Lake), while keeping our eyes open for wildlife and learning about both the region and oyster industry.
The Sapphire Coast is recognised for its quality oysters, thanks to its ideal location. Two powerful ocean currents merge here and this creates an ideal environment for a variety of marine life – including oysters – to flourish. It's a great place to learn about oysters… and taste them too, of course.
Brett has been farming oysters for over 12 years and running tours for almost five, so he knows how to keep the excursions interesting.
"I figured since I was on the water most of the day, I could show people what it is us oyster farmers do," he explains, as he steers the boat away from the shore.
As we cruise along Pambula Lake, passing oyster farm after oyster farm, we chat about the Sapphire Coast, admire wedge-tailed eagles from afar, and listen and watch as Brett discusses and demonstrates some of the intricacies of oyster farming.
There are five breeds of commercially grown oysters in Australia, but Sydney Rock Oysters – Saccostrea glomerata – are one of the best known (and most commonly farmed and eaten) varieties on the east coast. And they're found well beyond Sydney and its surrounds along 1500 kilometres of coastline, stretching all the way from southern Queensland to the New South Wales and Victorian border.
Brett explains that the endemic-to-Australia Sydney Rock Oysters are unlike many other oyster species because of their incredibly strong adductor muscles.
"What makes Sydney Rock Oysters special is their ability to keep their shell closed for extended periods of time," he explains. "It's something they naturally do because they live in an intertidal environment. This ability they have means they also retain freshness out of the water when harvested."
When in the water, the adductor muscles open, allowing the oysters to eat and breathe, and when out of the water, those same muscles allow the oyster to keep their shell closed. When harvested and stored at the optimal temperature ("About 10 to 20°C is ideal," Brett explains), Sydney Rock Oysters can stay fresh for up to a couple of weeks, making them the ideal oyster to distribute around the country.
Most people booked on a Captain Sponge's Magical Oyster Tour are keen to sample the goods, and Brett usually leaves this bit until the end. "This is what people look forward to most," he laughs.
Today, with only the three of us onboard, he pulls out just a few oysters for us to sample, explaining that they will taste best if kept alive right until the moment they are consumed. Next, Brett presents his collection of about a dozen or so oyster knives, encouraging us to pick the tool he'll use to shuck the oysters (we choose the fancy-looking shucking knife from Japan). And now? It's time for the grand opening.
Captain Sponge's Magical Oyster Tours take place on Pambula Lake on the NSW South Coast and run for approximately two hours. Adult tickets are $70, while kids aged between five and 16 pay $30.
Tatyana travelled as a guest of Destination NSW.