Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is known for producing some of the world’s most vibrant corals for the ornamental or fish-tank trade.
But in the crocodile and stinger infested waters off Darwin in the Northern Territory, divers are overcoming the risks to be a part of a lucrative international coral trade.
Diver Daniel Kimberley is collecting his own coral treasures and exporting them to Europe and the US.
“We’ll ship to Amsterdam, Paris, Japan, Singapore and London,” Mr Kimberley said, “but probably our biggest market is the USA.”
He says the coral has always been there for the taking, but the risks associated with collecting it are a clear disincentive for many.
“No one gets in the water, everyone’s a bit too scared of sharks and crocodiles and stingers,” Mr Kimberley said.
“On top of that we have massive tidal movement here, so the diving can be really challenging and in some ways that has kept the industry small in the past.
“So when people look off Darwin Harbour and see the murky water and the big tides and the crocs, the first thing that springs to mind isn’t coral.”
Mr Kimberley says once the challenges can be overcome, there are clear advantages to coral harvesting in the Northern Territory.
“Our reefs are pristine. We have no pressures from agriculture runoff or from heavy shipping or tourism,” he said.
“No one gets in the water, everyone’s a bit too scared of sharks and crocodiles and stingers”
“When we’re diving we’re the only people diving those reefs.”
To collect the coral, divers cut a small piece known as a ‘frag’ and then store it under artificial light to keep it alive until it reaches the buyer.
And that can be a long time given the buyers are coming from far and wide.
“In the past three years, since we’ve started exporting, it has taken over 60 per cent of our sales and it’s growing.
“It’s a bottomless pit overseas if you can crack that market.”
“The surprise I had came from seeing just how much people are willing to pay and how fanatical they get about their reef tanks.”
Mr Kimberley specialises in coral that only grows in Northern Territory waters.
He says standard corals can be sold more cheaply by Asian collectors and specialisation helps to distinguish his product from that sold from Queensland reefs.
“There are pieces of coral and fish that we get that they don’t. We might get the same species of coral but our colours might be better. So that’s how we compete.”
Mr Kimberley says the mark-up price on the coral by overseas wholesalers can be extreme.
“Your medium-sized pieces are $15 wholesale and in the shops it’s normally a 300 per cent mark up,” he said.
“Overseas, a [wholesale] $15 piece of coral will end up being $80 or more.
But despite the financial benefits, the job does come with risks.
“There was a fatality some years ago, with a coral collector in the Northern Territory doing exactly what we do,” Mr Kimberley said.
“So that has made me wary and as a consequence we never stay in the same spot for longer than a couple of days.
“In the warmer months when crocodiles are active, we always have someone on board with a fire arms license.
“Our policy is, if we can get the divers out of the water and move that’s great, but if we can’t, we do our best to put a bullet in the tail and scare it and hopefully it moves away and you can get your divers out and go to another spot.”
Top End divers sharing Darwin Harbour with crocodiles to meet international ...