A pet parade like no other – Australia’s Biggest Oysters are coming!

By Marion Wiliams

Australia’s Biggest Oyster competition is back!

Did you know Australia had a serious chance of having the world’s biggest oyster? It certainly had the weight to get into the Guinness Book of Records but sadly not the length. Australia’s biggest oyster competition has gone on to become a family favourite at the Narooma Oyster Festival.

Australias Oyster Coast manager Davin, chef colin Fassnidge and farmer Berni Connell stand together after Berni won Australia's Biggest Oyster in 2023.
Bernie Connell with chef Colin Fassnidge with Devin Watson, CEO of Australia's Oyster Coast who sponsor the competition.

Montague Vets’ Dr Kate Le Bars has been involved since the first competition in 2018 when Australia hoped to smash the world record. Kate was there to ensure it was alive. That means the shell is closed and the oyster passes the “sniff test”.

“They smell pretty bad if they are not alive,” she says. Dressed in her vet’s uniform, it is Kate’s responsibility to weigh the oysters, administer the “sniff test” and check them with her stethoscope. “It is part of the pageantry and drama and fun of it,” Kate says.

A woman wearing a white lab coat sniffs a large oyster, weighing almost 2 kilograms, for Australia's Biggest Oyster Competition
Montague Vets’ Dr Kate Le Bars does the 'sniff test' on an entrant in 2023.

In 2018 it was Bernie Connell’s oyster Jack that was tipped to break the world record.  Bernie also grew Jill who won last year’s competition. Born and bred in Batemans Bay, he is a fourth-generation oyster farmer who has been out in freezing cold mud at 5.30am checking the family’s oysters since he was 14 years old.

The oyster leases have been in his family for 96 years and the family has been on the property for 190 years. To say there is a fair bit of rivalry at the competition is an understatement, but Bernie willingly shares how he regularly produces gigantic Pacific oysters. Each year he buys new stock from a hatchery in Tasmania. He puts them on the mouth of the Clyde River for six weeks, grades them, then puts them back out.

Dr Kate, ABC Radio's Simon Marnie and Chef Colin Fassnidge check weigh an oyster.
Dr Kate, ABC Radio's Simon Marnie and chef Coling Fassnidge weigh and test an entrant in 2023.

“In every batch there will be ones that are six- to eight-times bigger than the others and we put them aside,” Bernie says. He had around 12 dozen big beauties primed to follow in the footsteps of Jack and Jill but lost around half of them to floods in early April.

“Pacific oysters don’t like fresh water. They were all so beautiful, as big as your hand,” he says. Jill, who weighed in at 2.89 kg last year, survived and will be one of this year’s entrants at the festival’s big day on Saturday, 4 May.

Australia's Biggest Oyster 2023 Contenders
Australia's Biggest Oyster contenders 2023

Pacific Oysters eat 19 types of algae while Sydney rock oysters only eat three types. Consequently, Sydney Rock Oysters take between 2.5 and three years to mature versus 12 months for Pacific oysters.

Kate says oysters can change sex from year to year depending on the availability of food. Therefore, Jack may have been a female, and Hagrid, another former winner, may have been Hermione.

Tongue-in-cheek, Kate says the shellfish take on personalities over the years. “After his victory in 2018, the following year Jack had sunglasses, an entourage of groupies and his own set of wheels, a bespoke pram.”

The high-stakes competition is full of drama. On occasions when oysters have been within one or two grams of each other, some competitors claimed rivals were not following the ‘single oyster’ rule because rivals’ oysters had smaller ones clinging to them.

Adding to the tension, the wind can affect the weighing scales.

The Narooma Oyster Festival is run by Narooma Rocks. Narooma Rocks chair Cath Peachey says it is the banter of the oyster farmers that makes the competition so much fun.

“We don’t take it too seriously. We ask them about the oyster’s training program, what they feed them and what exercises they do. It is a fun event at the festival not to be missed.”

The competition draws huge crowds around the main stage with kids in the front row clamouring to have their photograph taken with the champion oyster.

One thing is for sure. Bernie will be there proudly pushing Jill around in the pram, surrounded by admirers.

Australia’s Biggest Oyster is proudly supported by Australia’s Oyster Coast.

Read more about Australia’s Biggest Oyster.