The new 'kelp lady' of Narooma harvesting seaweed

The fascinating business of harvesting Narooma seaweed to create a health supplement has a new “kelp lady”.

Jo Lane, of Tilba Tilba, recently purchased a long-standing business harvesting seaweed in the area, made famous by Narooma’s original “kelp lady”, Betty Long.

Ms Lane has a bachelor of science from Macquarie University and also a post graduate diploma in environmental studies. He first job out of university was as an education officer at the then Oceanworld Manly, and later she worked at the Australian Museum and the Coastal Environment Centre at Narrabeen.

Ms Lane moved to the Narooma area when she obtained a job with the federally funded Coastcare organisation and undertook conservation projects and awareness duties from Batemans Bay to the border.

The potential sale of the seaweed harvesting company came to her attention when she read in the Narooma News that Sydney hospitality mogul Justin Hemmes had purchased the Glasshouse Rocks property and farm from Scott Long and his family.

Scott is the son of Betty, who started the seaweed harvesting company many decades ago on the farm, harvesting primarily at Glasshouse Rocks.

He was indeed interested in selling Sea Health Products and so Ms Lane was able to seal the deal, acquiring the company name as well as the specialised grinding machine for turning the dried kelp into a powder. 

But first you have to get the kelp that is actually the most widespread species along the southern Australian coastline – Ecklonia radiata – and also found around the world.

She has a permit from the NSW Department of Primary Industries that allows her to collect kelp between the tide marks from Dalmeny down past Bermagui, but her main collection points are Mystery Bay and also Bermagui. Helping is her husband Warren Atkins. 

“We are still trying to work out the pattern but it seems to be most plentiful in the calmer water after a storm when it is gently pushed up onto the beaches,” she said. “We try and get it as it is rolling in and is really fresh.”

The kelp fronds collected from the beach are then washed in fresh water and placed on drying racks on their property at Tilba Tilba before being put into the special grinding machine, that looks a bit like a cement mixer.

“It’s pure kelp with nothing added and comes out the consistency of salt and pepper,” she said.

The product is stocked locally and her family love to use as a salt substitute on the dining table.

She said it was quite a unique business and up until now there had been no one else harvesting and grinding kelp into meal for human consumption.

She has also been working with renowned marine ecologist Dr Pia Winberg from the Shoalhaven who is encouraging greater use of seaweed, including that grown using aquaculture techniques.

She has plans to diversify the product for use with other seasonings and would like to see it on both home dining tables and on restaurant menus. 

“We are very excited and passionate about the possibilities,” Ms Lane said.

The “old” kelp lady of Narooma

The following story features on the Sea Health Products website and was written by Kay Keavney for the Australian Women’s Weekly in January 1978:

Her name is Betty Long, and I call her the Kelp Lady.

She washes and rewashes the golden kelp with infinite care, dries it in the sun, chops it, turns it into meal, and she and her children eat it. Betty, her children, Anne (17) and son, Scott (15) are walking advertisements to its efficacy. They positively glow with golden health. 

“Don’t misunderstand,” Betty told me. “Kelp is only one factor. We three live on a natural diet, mostly fruit and vegetables, nuts, dates, sometimes fish, but rarely meat. Wherever possible our food is organically grown – a lot of it in our backyard. And we live an active outdoor life. Even if we didn’t want to, which we do, we’d have to gather the kelp.

”Seaweed is a marvelous supplement, rich in iodine and trace minerals, and proteins, and vitamins, and amino acids, and so much more, including bulk in the form of mucilage. It’s been used by both human beings and animals (especially dogs) for centuries in countries such as Japan, China, Polynesia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, the Continent. It’s a real lifesaver in goitre areas, being the richest source of iodine in the world. These days the land is depleted of its minerals, and our food is processed and refined and de-natured. Chemical sprays and additives add to the dangers.

”But the sea was the cradle of life on this planet. It still contains an abundance of life-sustainers. Seaweed feeds directly on seawater, absorbs its riches. All it need is to be converted into a palatable form, without losing any of its properties, and eaten while still sea-fresh.”

Betty was driven to her present way of life. About five years ago, badly rundown after private worries, she developed a serious, incurable (she was told) circulatory disease. The pain was acute, the prognosis threatening. She was ready to try anything. A friend sent her to the Natural Health Society of NSW. She was given good advice, but decided to work things out for herself by trial and error.

She was a Sydney girl, but all her life had spent holidays on a cliff hard by a beautiful crescent of beach near Narooma on the south coast of NSW. Twin sentinels, the superb Glass House Rocks, dominated the beach.

”At first,” Betty said, “we camped. Then Dad built a bit of a shack. He loved this place above all others, and he said he wanted to die here, and in fact he did. He retired here and built the big house just at the other end of the beach, and ran a farm. I became pretty familiar with farming practice, and I noticed how the animals thrived on kelp. Eventually my father bought 220 acres of this coastline.” She waved a sunburnt hand at the beauty on every side. “This belongs to my family, almost as far as the eye can see.

”And this is where I came, and bought the children, about four years ago when I was battling for my health and life. I lived with Mother in the big house across the bay while this house was built from the original shack. And I’ve been adding to it ever since.”

The house was charming, light, airy, nose turned to the sea and the glittering Rocks. Manicured lawns (mown by Scott every weekend) edged fields of wildflowers. There were geraniums in profusion, Sun-drying kelp loaded long wire racks at the side and back of the house. On the beaches below, Scott rode his surfboard. Anne was swimming. The foam was purest white.

”I gradually worked out my diet,” Betty said. “I tried to include kelp, but the stuff I could buy was imported, often stale. I’d sit here and watch the seaweed wash in on the beach, and think, why can’t I gather it myself and use it fresh? There followed months of wearying inquiries and experiments. How was the seaweed converted into meal? And what would be the best kelp of the many varieties that the South Coast yielded.”

Betty tracked down a disintegrator to chop up the meal. Her search for the perfect kelp ended with what she calls Golden Kelp, a type allied to the laminaria group, distinguished by its rich golden colour and fresh smell of iodine.

The Natural Health Society, excited by what she was doing, wrote about it in their magazine, which goes all over the world.

Betty was being bombarded with inquiries from all parts of Australia and as far away as Ethiopia and Japan. 

Soon she was flat out filling orders. It was a highly expensive business, since she packages and then sends the meal post-free.

”I’m not breaking even,” she told me without regret, “and I have to work hard gathering the kelp, sometimes going quite far a field to find my own special type. The children help me. It’s a family affair. I cut the sea-rubbish away and wash the kelp in sea-water. Then I wash it in clean fresh-water and dry it on the racks in the sun. Then I wash and dry it again, which takes about five hours. This gets rid of the salt and impurities. If rain comes it’s ruined. Rain washes out all the minerals. I have to work furiously in the rain to get it inside at times. When it’s dried I put it by hand through the disintegrator then keep sieving it to pure meal. Then the three of us package it and post it away.

”I collect my orders from the post office in the morning and dispatch them in the afternoon. That way I’m sure everything is really fresh. When the weather’s bad the work’s quite dangerous, especially getting the kelp in buckets up the cliffs, but on sunny days I love it. In fact I love it altogether, even though it’s hard, and it ties me down. It’s tremendously interesting and worthwhile, and it keeps me out in the open air. Somewhere along the line I’ve forgotten that I was ever ill."

Anne and Scott came up from the beach and fell upon slices of papaw with the gusto most of us reserve for chocolates. 

The sun shone. The seagulls soared. The giant Rocks glittered. The sea creamed on the crescent beach, and, receding, left on the sand its precious load of kelp.