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Agriculture stories

Ray Martin meets King Island kelpers

Edition 193_DavidBowling

When Ray Martin ventured to King Island in search of Tasmania's Stories to film, he expected a handful – but came back with a ‘swag-full’.

Among them, the colourful King Island race meet – which was ‘up there with the best’ – where Ray even backed a winner; not to mention the ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ beef tartare served up by local farmers Ana Pimenta and Tom Perry, who reveal the secret lies in ‘contented cows’.

However, there was one story that really caught Ray’s imagination: the tale of the local kelpers.

The media icon – and Brand Tasmania ambassador – was instantly drawn to this hardy band of islanders who collect the giant bull kelp cast on to the rugged coastline.

The King Island kelpers are a unique part of island life, and you would be hard pushed to find a tougher lot: pre-dawn starts, howling winds and the ever-present danger of wild seas.

“Glimpsing into the life of a King Island kelper helped me understand why this remote part of the world is so different – and so special,” Ray Martin said.

“This is a small tight-knit community that has always battled against the elements and depended on the sea for survival.

“King Island has its own raw, wild beauty, and the kelpers fit into that landscape - perfectly.”

The star of this tale is David Bowling, a fifth generation King Islander.

His family were among the first settlers of this stunning island at the edge of Bass Strait and has been farming the same stretch of rugged coast for more than a century.

“The island is very isolated with a simple way of life, but these days simplicity is the ultimate luxury,” David explained.

“King Island is the place where everyone will want to live. They just don’t know it yet.”

Fifty-one year old David says to survive on the island you need to be adaptable and try your hand at anything – and everything.

True to his word David is the local real-estate agent, councillor and some-time tour guide.

He is also a King Island kelper.

David first began collecting the enormous kelp as a young child by his father’s side, from the 15km shoreline along his family property.

“Farming at the time was going through a bit of a slump so my dad decided to try his hand at kelp harvesting,” David said.

“He bought a beaten up old army truck and attached a winch with thick steel cables at the front - and suddenly we were in business.”

Continuing this family tradition, David heads off before first light to collect the morning haul washed up by storms. Skipping across rocky boulders, he drags the kelp to steel cables where it is hooked and winched on to his old truck.

It is only on this jagged southern tip of the island - where Bass Strait throws up its roughest seas - that kelping can be found.

“The pristine waters around King Island produce the best kelp in the world - and there is plenty out there. It just needs the rough weather to break it off and bring it into shore,” David explained.

“The wilder the weather, the better the kelping.”

These giants of the ocean can grow an amazing 10cm in one day, and it is not unusual for David to haul kelp twice the length of his truck and weighing 50 kg.

He also collects around 300 plants every morning and admits it's a pretty tough job: “Only a handful of kelpers remain these days. Most of them come and go, they just can’t handle it.”

David however wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s the freedom,” he said.

“Not to mention the office with fresh air and kilometres of wild beauty.”

Kelp is big business and it’s getting bigger.

Like all kelpers, David’s haul ends up at the factory in Currie where it is hung out on racks and dried. It is then milled into a granulated product from which valuable alginates are extracted.

Alginates can be found in an endless array of products – from detergents and cosmetics to food. However, it is as an elixir of good health that this industry has really struck gold.

The Kelp Industries factory opened back in 1975 and King Island now supplies 5% of all the world’s alginates, according to General Manager, John Roediger.

“Our kelp is in big demand because it has a very high alginate content. Each year the factory produces around 4,000 tonnes of dried product and 85% of this is exported to Europe,” he said.

“We pump around two million dollars into the local economy every year. This really is a very important industry.”

To understand just how important kelp is to this isolated corner of the world – and the 1,600 people who call King Island home – you only need to head to Currie and witness the acre upon acre of giant seaweed hanging out to dry.

King Island kelper, David Bowling, sums it up perfectly.

“The ocean has always been the life-blood of our small Island,” he said.

“The sea has given us our ships, our fishing and of course, our kelp.”

Image courtesy of Robert Heazlewood

View Ray Martin’s story on The King Island kelpers below:

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To learn more about Ray Martin's recent visit to King Island, view the videos below:

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Watch video on YouTube

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11 April 2018, Edition 193

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