Pearl Divers in Mexico
Pearl Divers in Mexico faced many hazards. Enjoy this 1908 information from Kunz and Stevenson included in their pearl book.
The present methods of the fishery on the Mexican coast are quite different from those of thirty years ago when nude diving was the only method in vogue. Instead of the haphazard work, largely in shallow water, the industry is conducted systematically, and the limit of depth is increased, much of the diving being in depths of ten to fifteen fathoms.
The pearl divers in Mexico operate either from a large vessel making a cruise two or three months in a length, or from a camp on the shore near the reefs. A vessel visits them frequently to furnish supplies and to transport the catch to La Paz. The fishing boats are undecked craft, each equipped with and air-pump and a crew of six men: a diver, a cabo de vida or life-line man, who is usually the captain, two bomberos at the air-pump and two rowers.
The greatest depth at which armored diving is attempted by pearl divers in Mexico rarely exceeds twenty fathoms; twenty-five fathoms is full as deep as it is practicable to go, and it is not advisable to remain at that depth more than a very few minutes.
At fifteen fathoms a diver may remain half an hour or more, and at six or eight fathoms he may work uninterruptedly for several hours.
When the water is very cold, the pearl divers in Mexico come up frequently to restore their numbed circulation by vigorous rubbing. The occupation is especially conducive to rheumatism, and paralysis is more or less general, due, not only to the compressed atmosphere, but to the abrupt changes of temperature.
The work is very debilitating, with particular effect on the nerves, and partial deafness is common. It is important that the diver be careful about overeating before descending, as heavy foods, and meats especially, make respiration difficult; therefore, breakfast consists of little more than bread and coffee.
The risks and dangers for pearl divers in Mexico from sharks, devil-fish, etc, have greatly diminished since the introduction of scaphanders; for a stout diver in his waterproof dress, with leads on the breast, shoulders, and shoes, and on his head a massive helmet containing great gaping windows for eyes, is enough to cause even a hungry shark to hesitate and seek a more digestible meal.
There are yet many nude pearl divers in Mexico, who operate in shallow water, their cheap labor making them successful competitors of the armored divers. In arranging with these, the pearl company commonly grub-stakes a crew, pays a stipulated sum per hundredweight for the shells, and bargains for the pearls. If the fishermen are not satisfied with the price offered for these, they are at liberty to sell to other buyers under certain restrictions.
Nude diving is confined to the warm months, beginning about the middle of May and continuing until October. Owing to the cloudy or muddy condition of the water of the gulf, the nude diver can not inspect the bottom from the surface and select the best oysters before descending, nor can he work satisfactorily at depths greater than seven or eight fathoms. While the work is hard, it is more remunerative than the average branch of labor in this region.
Each day the boats deliver their catch of oysters at the fishing-camps or on board the receiving vessels. After they have been freed of marine growths and refuse, the mollusks are opened and searched for pearls.
This operation is performed by trusted employees, usually elderly men who have become physically disqualified for diving, and who, seated together at a low table, work under the watchful eyes of the overseers. A knife is introduced between the valves of the oyster, the abductor muscle is severed, and the valves are separated by breaking the hinge.
The animal is removed from the shell and carefully examined with the eyes and fingers, and then squeezed in the hands to locate any pearl which may be concealed in the organs or tissues. The debris is passed to other persons, who submit it to further examinations. A man may work all day long and find only a few seed pearls, but occasionally there is the excitement of discovering a beautiful gem.
In some localities the flesh of a pearl-oyster is a source of profit through its sale to Chinamen, who dry and otherwise prepare it for sale among their countrymen in Mexico and America, as well as in the Orient. Frequently the large adductor muscle is fried for food, making excellent soup-stock, and, indeed, it is quite palatable when stewed. Go to main Pearl Farm page after "Pearl Divers in Mexico" for several other diving articles.