South Africa

An Oyster’s Journey

Not too long ago, I was on a media junket run by the Hong Kong government. Unlike other sponsored journalist programs I’ve been on—bouncing along in SUVs on big-game safaris, touring indigenous women’s collectives that made jewelry out of Red Bull pull-tabs—this one was a dull series of meetings in tall glass towers with men in suits warmly congratulating themselves on Hong Kong’s secure regulatory environment and love for rule of law. At each rendezvous I was served a glass of water neither hot nor cold, interviewees and their attendants indicating by nods that I should sip the water. The experience made me vaguely feel like a concussed child in a walk-in health clinic. No tours of beautiful, graffiti-scrawled, monkey-inhabited temples on some UNESCO list, nor samplings of vodka infused with an endangered local herb.

Early on in the trip, my guide and handler Cheery (not her real name, but close) asked me about Namibian oysters, which were currently in vogue at upscale Hong Kong restaurants. This caught me by surprise: six months earlier I had been on a catamaran on Walvis Bay, Namibia, sailing around the oyster aquaculture colony there. Twenty-five years ago, no one knew that Namibia is a great place to grow oysters. As it turns out, the cold Benguela Current brings nutrient-rich water up from the depths along the southwest African coast to fuel massive production of phytoplankton, which the oysters dine on.

Namibians mainly grow Crassostrea gigas, or Pacific oyster, an entirely foreign species, because the current is actually too cold for most oysters to breed. Very young oysters called “seed” are shipped in from hatcheries in Chile—that country’s Humboldt Current being similar in certain respects to the Benguela.

The catamaran slowed as we worked our way along the rows of floats marking the oyster cages below. Long swells from the Atlantic entered the bay and rocked the vessel back and forth. The boat’s captain told me that once the harvests reach maturity, they are shipped in their entirety to Asia, mostly to Hong Kong. This is a recent development—most of the oysters used to be destined for the much closer South Africa. But Hong Kong consumers see these oysters differently; they’re more highly prized.

Except for the impressive carbon footprint these oysters can claim, the story seemed a happy one of economic development in a part of Africa keen for income. But at the end of the colony, the boat rounded the stern of an old trawler moored to the seabed. There I saw four men on deck in orange foul-weather gear, standing around a large metal table, hand-scrubbing oysters, one-by-one. They looked up but did not wave—they seemed miserable. My Walvis Bay guide said this tedious process must be repeated every month to six weeks, for every one of the millions of oysters down below, due to a particular algae found in the water there but not off Chile. Each oyster is scrubbed and replaced in a net bag holding several dozen of its Chilean colleagues, and lowered to the bed of the bay.

(Incidentally, Walvis Bay is crowded with ocean-going Spanish trawlers, taking a breather from denuding Namibian waters of anchovy and horse mackerel and pilchard. As long as the fish are packaged onboard or back in Spain, they can be marketed as Spanish products. Think about it next time you’re sitting in your Messi shirt at a Barcelona sidewalk café, enjoying “Spanish” seafood tapas.)

On the plus side, Namibian oysters mature in half the time they do in Chile, months rather than years—the water off the African coast is more oxygenated and richer in plankton. This impatience is ideal for the Hong Kong market—the managing partner of a financial services firm there told me, “In Hong Kong people step into an elevator and hit the ‘close door’ button behind them, oblivious to others trying to board. They want to get moving. They don’t want to wait.”

I happened to travel to the place where the oysters that are eaten in Hong Kong, but grown and scrubbed in Namibia, actually come from. Vividly green Chiloé Island, off the southern mainland of Chile, is starkly different from the vast and arid desert of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, and even more of a contrast to the Peninsula or Mandarin Oriental hotels.

Chiloé gives its name to a sparsely populated 40-island archipelago. For centuries fishermen there have built their wooden boats, and they’re still the main way to get around—national air carrier LAN only started flying to Chiloé in 2012.

With a group from my resort, I cruised the islands in a locally constructed power boat, and went off on excursions in kayaks. Floats from oyster and mussel colonies dot the coastlines, as do 16 UNESCO-protected wooden churches, built between the 17th and 19th centuries by locals under the supervision of Jesuits and Franciscans. When told by the clergy what a European church looked like, they put it in nautical terms. The result at the Chellín church, for example, is a ceiling built and shaped like the curved hull of a boat, flipped upside-down.

Chiloé feels like New Zealand, or maybe Ireland—lots of fog, rainbows, rolling green hills, tucked-away coves and fishing villages. This mix of elements must inspire something in the human imagination: Chiloé is clothed in myths, including that of Trauco, not a leprechaun spreading Lucky Charms but a homely looking goblin who lives in the forests, and to this day is invoked whenever an unwed woman becomes pregnant under “mysterious” circumstances. Trauco is one figure in Chilote mythology, which pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish. The locals also claim that they—not the Irish—gave the world the potato, and there are more than 400 varieties identified there so far. It was from these and nearby waters that Namibia got its oysters.

Over English tea in the lobby of a swanky Hong Kong hotel, I meet Josh LeBlanc, Managing Director of Atlantic Treasure. He hails from a family of Nova Scotia fishermen, and is the first of his kin not to work on a boat. He moved to Hong Kong six years ago to introduce the sea cucumber to local gourmands. There, the animal is used in stir-fries and considered a delicacy. On menus it is called “cucumber intestines”—not a complete misrepresentation, as the cucumber is mostly intestine anyway. Business was slow to start, but is now good: Leblanc ships 250,000 pounds a year to this market. Hong Kong diners demand ever-more-exotic foods, and so LeBlanc’s family is busy trawling for other Canadian aquatic oddities, dragging stuff up from the cold Atlantic bottom and seeing if the Chinese like it.

Public intellectuals lecture us to rush to the world’s cities and begin “ideating” and TED talking, to develop sophisticated palates. Hong Kong is one of these “creation destinations.” But like Dubai and Singapore, it is entirely dependent on an interconnected outside world for its well-heeled food. This includes boat-builders in Chilé, men with wire brushes in Walvis Bay and fishermen off dashed-rock Atlantic Canada. Hong Kong has an immense appetite. In culinary terms, it is a stationary, filter-feeding organism—similar characteristics to the oyster its people currently adore dining on.


Alexander Wooley

Alexander Wooley is the Director of Partnerships and Communications for AidData, an international development research lab based at William & Mary. He is also a journalist who has published in the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, the, the American Interest, the Globe and Mail and others. Alex is a former British Royal Navy officer, and a former editor of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. He holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University, and is the author of the upcoming Discontented Drones: Unmanned while Stoking the Fires in the Boiler-Room of the American Empire.

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