The History of Black Pearl Diving
A Pearl for Ten Thousand Oysters
The divers of the Tuamotu are nomadic, and move from one island to another depending on the wealth of the seabed. They use outrigger canoes or more comfortable ketches built in Tahiti by Europeans. They have given up on large double outrigger canoes joined by a bridge and equipped with a sail made of pandanus leaves. The Paumotu are considered the best divers. They anchor their boat and explore the seabed wearing a square wooden box with a glass bottom. These very special goggles allow them to explore the seabed down to twelve meters.
On calm days, they can also spread coconut oil to remove surface ripples. The Paumotu is able to descend up to twenty-five meters. He therefore performs a real physical feat every day. Each diver is accompanied by an assistant who stays in the boat to let out the lead-weighted cable on demand, allowing the diver to enter deep water without too much effort. At the bottom of the lagoon, the braided, lead or steel-weighted basket awaits him. The dive will last two to three minutes during which the diver tears the pearls off the coral, his hands protected by gloves often crudely sewn from sailcloth. This protects them from the aggression of the oyster's beards. The diver resurfaces to breathe, expelling carbon dioxide in long, very particular whistles that some find lugubrious. When the basket is full, after one or more dives, Paide brings it up. He opens the oysters, discards the contents, and cleans the shells. And sometimes, it's a miracle! A pearl is discovered! The diver goes down like this all day in a kind of game with death.
Free diving, without breathing apparatus, is one of the hardest jobs there is. It requires perfect physical shape. It can be fun to dive five or ten meters, but at a certain depth, the pressure increases, the first problems appear, often auditory: bleeding of the eardrums sometimes occurs. Eye problems and nervous system problems also occur. Partial paralysis of the face or hemiplegia can also be feared. A diver who has an accident is considered taravana, a little crazy. The brain, insufficiently oxygenated, suffers from irreversible damage and causes a state similar to drunkenness. It is the sudden decompression of the ascent that is very dangerous. Every year, several divers find death this way. However, this does not prevent the others from continuing their hallucinating pace from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a short break for lunch. Divers. Scuba diving was, for nearly forty years, less popular than free diving. The cost of equipment is generally covered by the Chinese, and the proceeds of the fishing go directly to them.
In his 1904 administrative report, Governor Andre outlines regulations for the two modes of fishing. He considers dividing the lagoon into two equal periods reserved for the two modes of fishing. However, he does not adopt this solution because in three and a half months, the scuba divers would not be able to recover their costs. Finally, he puts scuba divers and free divers on the same footing. He also questions the principle of opening some lagoons to diving and prohibiting others. He notes that this forces the inhabitants to lead a nomadic life and neglect their crops. He proposes opening all the lagoons simultaneously, but dividing them into several sectors. He also notes that new islands have been designated as suitable for scuba diving.
These are, he says, islands where free divers do not go in groups and whose lagoons are hardly exploited at the moment. In free diving, the owner of the boat gets a share of the profits and the divers are paid by the kilogram. The operating cost of a scuba diving rig is quite high and, to be profitable, it must catch at least 3,500 kilograms of mother-of-pearl per month. The production of scuba diving rigs escapes the Chinese intermediaries. Whether it's free diving or scuba diving, we must remember that the condition of the fishermen was particularly difficult.
Any black pearl that ended up in a big jewelry store had been won statistically at the cost of a man's death. The emergence of cultured pearls completely de-dramatized the problem. Today, fine pearls are extremely rare because there are few old oysters, because diving is declining and is only done to turn oysters for grafting. These three-year-old oysters rarely have anything other than a tiny fine pearl. Whatever our admiration for fine pearls, let us meditate on this phrase from a scientist at the beginning of the century, Mr. R. Dubois: "The most beautiful pearl is ultimately only the shining sarcophagus of a worm."