Divers - Times and Depths

Amazing feats by divers and diving reports from historical accounts.



The natives of the South Sea Islands, and particularly of Penrhyn and the Tuamotu group, are doubtless the most expert divers in the world. This can be readily appreciated by those who have read of Hua Manu in C.W. Stoddard’s thrilling narrative, or have heard the story of the brown women who swam for forty hours in a storm with a helpless husband on her back.

Accustomed to the water from infancy, these human otters swim all day long as readily as they would walk, go miles from shore in search of fish which they take my means of baited hook and line, and boldly attack a shark single-handed.

Seemingly fabulous stories are told of their descending, unaided, 150 feet or more beneath the surface, and remaining at lesser depths for nearly three minutes, far surpassing any modern records of the divers in India.

The water in the South Seas is wonderfully clear, enabling the divers to detect small objects at considerable depths, and especially so when using the water-telescope, similar to that employed in the Red Sea fisheries.

By immersing this to a depth of several inches and cutting off the light from the upper end as he gazes through it down into the waters, the divers can readily inspect the bottom at a depth of fifteen fathoms, and thus locate the shell before he descends. The diving is not quite unlike that in Ceylon and Arabia. The divers do not descend on stones, but swim to the bottom. The driver is stripped to his pareu or breech-clout, his right hand protected by a cotton mitten or by only a wrapping of cotton cloth, and in his left hand he carries a pearl shell to assist in directing his movements and in detaching the oysters at the bottom.

In preparing for deep descent, he sits for several minutes in characteristic attitude with hands hanging over knees, and repeatedly inflates his lungs to the fullest capacity, exhaling air slowly through his mouth. After five or six minutes of “taking the wind,” the diver inhales a good breath, drops over the gunwale into the water to give him a start, and descends feet foremost.

At a distance between twelve or fifteen feet below the surface, gracefully as an otter or a seal, he bends forward and turns head downward and, with limbs showing dimly in frog-like motion, he swims vertically the remaining distance to the bottom. There he assumes a horizontal position and swims slowly just above the ground, searching critically for suitable oysters, in this way traversing a distance of possibly fifty feet or more.

When he has secured an oyster, or his breath is approaching exhaustion, he springs from the ground in an erect position and rapidly swims upward, the buoyancy of his body hastening his ascent to that he pops head and shoulders above the surface, and false back with laboring pulse and panting breath.

In case the dive has been unusually extended, a few drops of blood may trickle from the nose and mouth. His find—consisting frequently of nothing and rarely of more than one oyster—is carried in a cocoanut fiber sack suspended from the neck, or is held in the left hand, or may be hugged beneath the left arm.

Ordinarily in actual fishing operations, the fishermen do not descend to greater depths than fifteen fathoms, and remain from sixty to ninety seconds.

Writing in 1851, a trader who had spent several years in collecting pearls and pearl shells among the Tuamotus stated: “I timed several by the watch, and the longest period I knew any of them to keep beneath the water was a minute and a quarter, and there were only two who had accomplished this feet. Rather less than a minute was the usual duration. It is unusual to attempt deep diving; and let the shells be ever so abundant, they will come up and swear there are none.” (1)

However, in mutual contests or in special exhibitions, reports of twenty, twenty-three, and even twenty five fathoms are numerous, and they have repeatedly been timed two and a half to three minutes.

Bouchon-Brandely speaks of a woman at Anaa, one of the Tuamotus, who would go down twenty five fathoms and remain three minutes under water. (2) This seems very unusual, but there are numerous reports of two and a half minutes and seventeen to eighteen fathoms.

In October, 1899, at Hikueru Island, and of the Tuamotus group, a young native made an exhibition dive for the officers of the United States Fish Commission steamship Albatross. He reached bottom at a depth of 102 feet under the boat’s keel, and remained submerged two minutes and forty seconds.

The water was so transparent that he was clearly seen from the surface. After he touched bottom at that great depth, he calmly picked over the coral and shells to select a piece to bring up. The diver was read to go down again only a few minutes after he came up.

In his work on French Oceanica, Chartier states: “there are three women well known in the archipelago who have no equals elsewhere; they explore the depth at twenty-five fathoms and remain not less then three minutes before reappearing at the surface.”(3)

However these unusual depth and extensions of time are dangerous, and care must be taken or serious results follow. Most of the catch is obtained in about ten fathoms of water.

At the request of the writer, Mr. Julius D. Dreher, American Consul at Tahiti, made inquiries among the South Sea Islands in regard to the records of the best divers, and wrote as follows:

Mr. J.L. Young, who has lived in these islands for thirty years, informs me that he has never seen divers remain under water longer than 80 seconds, and that at a depth of twelve to fifteen fathoms.

At one time he tested a man who claimed to be able to stay under for three minutes, yet this man could not hold his breath on land less than 80 seconds by the watch. Elder Joseph F. Burton, who has spent many years as a missionary in these islands, states that once in Hikueru, of the Tuamotu group, he went out in a boat with the divers to time them.

The best record made was 107 seconds, but he was informed that there were better divers on the island than the ones he tested. He thinks the water was ten to twelve fathoms in depth. A tanitve of Takaroa, named Metuaro, told Mr. Burton that he could stay underwater three minutes or longer. When these divers come up they take a breath and immediately put their head under water to prevent headache. Mr. J. Lamb. Doty, former Consul and now Vice-Consul at Tahiti, who has spent eighteen years here, is will to be quoted as affirming that he once timed a diver who remained under water two minutes thirty-five seconds. Mr. Henry B. Marwin, a leading trader with the Tuamotu Islands, is willing to be quoted as saying that he saw a diver remain under water four minutes forty-five seconds by the watch. This is generally regarded, so far as my inquiries go, as improbable; but most divers interviewed believe that men do remain under water two and a half to three minutes.

Divers of Takaroa, name Tai, assured me in the presence of other that there were twenty men on that island who could remain under water two to three minutes at a depth of twenty fathoms. They claimed to be able to stay three minutes at that depth.

1. Lucatt, “Rovings in the Pacific from 1837 to 1849,” London, 1851, Vol.I,p.245.
2.”Bulletin United States Fish Commission,” Vol.V,p.293
3.”Tahiti et les Colonies Francaises de la Polynesie,” Paris, 1887, p.173.

Special thanks to Kunz and Stevenson for their 1908 account of pearl divers.

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