The Pearl Diver*

Typical Japanese pearl diver at Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, circa 1920. Image by Frank Hurley, photographer on the Shackleton Expedition to the Antarctic.

“Kanzo Makame, the diver, sturdy and small Japanee,

Seeker of pearls and of pearl-shell down in the depths of the sea,

Trudged o’er the bed of the ocean, searching industriously.

Over the pearl-grounds the lugger drifted — a little white speck:

Joe Nagasaki, the “tender”, holding the life-line on deck,

Talked through the rope to the diver, knew when to drift or to check.”

*Poem by ‘Banjo’ Paterson, 1864-1941.  Follow link to see full text:

Prior to the introduction of cultured pearls, pearling was already an ancient industry with a long tradition spanning many cultures.  Originally harvested for the shell itself and its functional ability to be crafted into fishhooks and tools, certain types of shell became valued for the lustre and thickness of their rich mother-of-pearl lining.  Fashioned into buttons, ornaments, or used as an inlay to enhance timber furniture, the same large, thick shells also produced gem quality pearls; an added bonus for those fortunate enough to discover one.

Found in commercially viable quantities in the warm, nutrient rich waters of the eastern South Pacific – notably the islands of the Torres Strait and the North-west coast of Australia, centred on Broome – harvesting oyster shell for export was hard and precarious work originally carried out by breath-hold divers.

Quickly depleting the easily accessed oyster beds, the search for shell continued into ever-deeper waters where, in the second half of the 19th century, the breath-hold method of harvesting gave way to the heavy-duty standard diving helmet and dress.  

Now able to spend extended periods of time underwater at greater depths than was ever possible on a single lungful of air – and able to gather shell in greater quantities – the chance of discovering a pearl was still limited by the fact that only one out of every 15,000 to 20,000 oyster shells ever yielded a treasure; and of those that did, many were blemished or imperfectly shaped.  Nor was the use of the new technology without risk.  Romanticised in fiction, the pearl shell diver’s job was one of constant hardship and danger.

Reliant on an umbilical hose to the surface and with communications limited to a coded system of simple pulls and tugs on the lifeline, these early divers – many of the divers as well as their tenders were Japanese – exercised extreme care in ensuring that their air hose didn’t become fouled or sliced on sharp undersea objects.  Should the air supply fail for any reason then the water pressure would easily crush the flexible suit and, until the advent of the non-return valve, force the diver’s body up into the rigid helmet to a gruesome death.

Lacking our present understanding of the causes of decompression sickness and the need to ascend slowly back to the surface, countless numbers of divers suffered the excruciating agony of, ‘the bends’, a condition that killed many while leaving others permanently paralysed or crippled.

With little or no formal training in the use of the equipment, these highly paid, “hard-hat”, divers were the expendable elite of an industry that, following the Second World War, entered into swift decline as cheaply produced plastics superseded the use of mother-of-pearl.

In 1956, joint Australian, Japanese and American interests established the first cultured pearl farm in Australia – where the world’s largest pearls are now produced – and resurrected the need for divers and new methods of harvesting.


Categories: History

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