Pearl Diver

So...how does a pearl diver dive?

An account of diving from the nineteenth century.


In preparing for descent, the fisherman from which the diving stone is suspended, puts one foot in the loop just above the stone and places the other foot in the rim of a net basket, eighteen inches wide, made of coir rope.

When ready he signals his attendant, inhales several good breaths, closes his nostril with a Fitaam or nostril-clasp of flexible horn attached to a cord around his neck, raises his body somewhat above the surface to give force to the descent, releases the slip-knot retaining the stone and sinks rapidly to the bottom.

Immediately disengaging his foot from the stone the diver throws himself in a stooping position on the ground and collects as many oysters as possible during the fifty seconds or more in which he is able to remain under water.

When near the limit of his endurance the pearl diver gives a hastily gives a signal jerk to the rope attached to the basket, and the watchful attendant hauls him up as speedily as possible, the pearl diver frequently quickening the ascent by hand over hand movement up the rope.

When near the surface, the pearl diver lets go of the rope and with his arms close to his body pops above the surface puffing and blowing.

The contents of the net bag are emptied into a large basket by the attendant, and the dead shells and other refuse or separated from the live oysters and thrown back into the sea, the diver having worked too rapidly to discriminate closely as to what he gathered.

In the meantime, the stone has been drawn up and suspended by the slip-knot in its customary position and the diving partner is resting at the surface preparatory to descending.

Thus, diving alternately at intervals of five or six minutes, each fisherman descends thirty or forty times in an ordinary day’s work.

The number of oysters gathered at each descent depends on such conditions as their abundance, the depth and clearness of the water, etc. It ranges from none to fifty or more, but ordinarily ten or twelve is a good average.

As the men commonly work on shares, the shells brought up by each diver or by each pair of diver are kept separate.

The best type of Arab pearl diver are very careful of themselves, drying the body thoroughly with towels on coming out of the water, taking interval of rest during the days work; and even while in the water between dives they may enjoy the luxury of a cheroot or pipe, or possibly a cigarette may pass from mouth to mouth of several men.

When pursuing their work the divers are abstemious. After devotions at sunrise and a light breakfast of perhaps dates or rice and coffee, they begin fishing.

About noon they knock off for coffee, prayers, and an hour’s siesta, and then resume work for several hours. When the days work is over and they have face Mecca-ward with the customary prayers, they rest and eat a substantial meal, commonly of dates and fish roasted over a charcoal fire.

In equal depths the Arab pearl diver remains under water longer than those of India who resort to the Ceylon fishery, but this is partly counterbalanced by the latter descending somewhat more frequently.

When preparing for a lengthy dive, the pearl diver imbibes large quantities of air, opening his mouth and inhaling large volumes. The length of time a pearl diver remains submerged in the average depth of seven or eight fathoms rarely exceeds sixty seconds, although some may remain seventy, eighty, and even ninety seconds on special occasion.

A fully substantiated instance is reported from Manaar of an Arab diver having remained 109 seconds in seven fathoms of water.

This occurred April 13, 1887, and was witnessed and reported (1) by Captain James Donnan, the inspector of the fishery. Wellsted reports (2) a diving contest in the Persian Gulf in which only one man, of hundreds who competed, remained down 110 seconds; the depth, however is not noted.

1. “Reports by the Superintendent of the Fishery and the Inspector of the Pearl Banks,” Colombo, 1887.
2. Wellsted, “Travels in Arabia,” London, 1838, Vol. 1, p. 266.

Special thanks to Kunz and Stevenson for their 1908 account of a diver of pearls.

Next suggested page: pearl diver video.
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