Eye-witness Account of an Australian Pearl Fishery

This re-telling of work in an Australian pearl fishery is from the Kunz and Stevenson book about pearls, printed in 1908. Keep that fact in mind, while reading, that the information is a century old, when pearls were natural and not commonly cultured.

Packing mother of pearl in Australia
Packing Mother of Pearl in Australia

An Australian friend, David, has given tours on an historic Australian pearling lugger. I can't wait to see his photos and read his stories.

The following interesting account by Henry Taunton gives a graphic description of the Australian pearl industry as carried on at that time:

The work at an Australian pearl fishery was far from easy. It was exhausting and perilous for the divers, and full of privation, exposure, and danger for the white men. Only the hope of a prosperous season reconciled one to the life. When shells were plentiful and the weather fine, the work was exciting and interesting enough; but during rough weather when one had to be constantly straining at the oar to keep the dinghy from drifting too rapidly, or when hour after hour might pass without the men bringing up a single shell, the discouragement was great. The rays of the vertical sun beating down on one's shoulders at such times seemed as if it would never reach the western horizon, which was the signal for returning on board.

As may well be imagined, at the Australian pearl fishery when three or four white men had to control and compel some thirty or forty native to carry on work which they detested, a very strict discipline had to be maintained. It was the rule at an Australian pearl fishery that no talking was allowed amongst the divers when in the dinghy, nor were they even permitted to address the white man, unless, maybe, to answer a question as to the nature of the bottom, whether nanoo (sand) or bannin (shelly bottom), etc, or unless some urgent necessity arose. Sometimes, indeed, I have pushed off from the vessel's side of an Australian pearl fishery in the morning and have not heard a word spoken until we returned on board at night, unless chance might take me within hail of some other dinghy, when felicitations or condolences would be exchanged, as good or bad luck might happen.

At times, when the "patch" was small, the dinghys of the whole fleet of an Australian pearl fishery might be congregated on a very small area,in which case the scene was animated enough. On all sides you could see divers slipping into the water and others just coming to the surface, puffing, blowing, and coughing to clear their eyes, ears, and mouth from the salt water--some with, others without shells. Others from the Australian pearl fishery would be swimming to regain their dinghy or squatting in their places for the few minutes' rest permitted, and, if the wind were at all fresh, shivering with cold; for although the weather might be extremely hot, the constant plunging in and out for many hours at a time tended to reduce the bodily temperature considerably.

The white men would be seen standing up in each dinghy. They were lightly clad, with shirt sleeves and trousers rolled up, in all varieties and colours of costume, from the regulation shirt, trousers, and felt hat, with leather belt sustaining sheath-knife and pouch, to the more comfortable pyjama suit, or even the Malay sarong.

Some from the Australian pearl fishery would be straining hard at the end of the scull-oar, forcing the boat against wind and tide in the endeavor to keep it as long as possible on the "patch," which was marked by the discoverer's buoy, which also might be observed nodding on the surface, and canted over by the swiftly rushing tide.

Others, their men all being below, just kept the dinghy's head to wind until, by judicious use of the oar and well-calculated drifting, all the divers reappear on the surface within a short distance from their own boat.

This is the secret of saving the divers at the Australian pearl fishery from wasting their powers and time uselessly....As may be supposed, where the tide sweeps the divers long the bottom at the rate of three or four or even six miles an hour, they have to be very smart in seeking and grabbing any shell within reach. I have never tested them with a time-keeper; but by counting seconds on many occasions, from the moment a diver's head sank below until it again came above the surface, I estimated the average time under water was fifty-seven seconds.

Part of this is of course expended in swimming to the bottom where they can remain only a very few seconds, as time must be allowed for reaching the surface before letting go their breath. Practice in every-varying depths enables them to gauge this limit of time to a nicety. But sometimes they cut things too fine, and then a catastrophe was inevitable, unless much watchfulness was exercised by the white man, who has to keep his eyes turned in all directons once his men are down.

So long as a diver from an Australian pearl fishery can hold his breath the pressure forces him to the surface at a speed which seldom required accelerating by strokes with the hands or feet; but the moment he lets go his breath--if under water--his upward course is arrested and his body commence to sink. Now, when the white man see this, either he must plunge in to rescue himself, or direct such divers who may be on the top to do the needful.

On a calm day, when one can see far into the blue clear depths below, I have often seen one of my men shooting rapidly upwards until within perhaps a foot or two from the surface, when a sudden gush of bubbles from the man's mouth would tell its own tale. Instantly he would begin to sink gently downwards, and only quick action could save this diver who had miscalculated his time. However, as it was not infrequent for divers from an Australian pearl fishery to go down and never come up at all, one may conclude that, where the time to be allowed is comprised in so few seconds, even the most experienced make fatal errors. 1

1 "Australind," London, 1900,pp.233-29

Check out these pages for more information about Australian oyster fisheries before 1908, or natural pearl oyster species in Australia, or about the beginning of Australian pearl fishery.

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