Pearlshell oysters lie at the bottom of the ocean, and men and women have risked their lives to find them.

From traditional shell gathering to modern hookah diving, methods of collecting pearlshell – and the ‘jewels’ that sometimes lie within – changed as the industry progressed. For a long time mother of pearl was in demand for manufacturing buttons, but when plastic replaced shell, pearlers turned to cultured pearl farming, focusing on the pearls themselves.

Free diving

Edward Angelo, Government resident of Roebourne:

(Read by Peter Docker)

“On the 27th of October 1886, the case of three natives versus John McRae for coercion on board the Dawn commenced. Five justices were present. Of these two were debarred from sitting on the case as being too personally interested in it; a member of the firm and principal agent for McRae & Co, and inspector, who signed the natives. Of the two justices who sat with me, is banker to the firm, and throughout the proceedings has acted as advocate to McRae & Co in the worst possible taste. This gentleman, I’ve already reported accompanied the inspector to the Dawn on the occasion of the futile visit to that ship, immediately after, which the Dawn got away to the sea with the two missing natives, who had been illegally seized by John McRae and their professional nigger catcher Hackett, and re-coerced on board. I submit for the consideration of government whether this action does not bring the Dawn under the category of a slaver.”

Paddy Djiagween Jaguin, Shell opener and crew:

“Yeah, well they put them in the deeper water, and give more punishment. The punishment is for those who don’t get shell, they get them, they get put up on the mast and give them punishment — nothing to eat. And make them dive again. They have to find shell.”

Hard-hat diving

Kunihiko Kaino, Hard-hat diver:

“There is a two, three divers, each boat. And first diver, second diver. I’ve been the first diver, so give to order to the skipper, we call first tender. Final responsibility it is me, but navigation responsibility is a tender or skipper. Tender always carry the my life line, so preferred same people. But I used an Okinawan and then the Malay boys also. Navigation is not very easy. Tiny compass, that’s it. Other than that, we look at the star. I regarded a season as a competition. All good friend, but competing each other. That the typical fishermen’s mentality, so good for the company. Bends are always, you must accept. You’re making money. You’re working for the money. If you are scared that, just give up diving.”

Itsushi Shioji, Hard-hat diver:

“But the diving, diving my job, but very dangerous. In a pain, pain run ‘em [ie the pain in your body], you know. Three different sick places, you know. This one, easy one, lawmatechi called. And after come more further inside, half-cast. This one, second heavy one. The third one, paralysis. Sometime hit in the brain, after this one coming, more can’t walk, same like the stroke. Couple of times, I play, not much shell, only snake. Some were very cheeky. This one a skinny one, brown and white colour. Long one. Very skinny, but big mouth open. Joint, take it out. Chase me and biting my flipper. Once drifting, maybe that time thirty minutes. Tiger shark my side. Same distance. Same speed. Come home. Oh, big one. Four, five meter. Go away, then come back. Go away, come back. Me, head diver, but I can’t come up. If come up behind come in, see very dangerous. Waiting on the shark gone, that’s all.”

Drift diving

Steve Arrow, Hookah diver:

“The diving that was being done was the modern hookah system. I guess its like hanging on to a rope and flying. You had the tide behind you, and you had the boat just ever so slightly pulling the rope. The seabed underneath you was folding away. It was coming into vision in front of you and then disappearing at the back. And it was the most unusual experience. And of course, that’s how it worked. You could see these pearlshell that will come into your field of vision and you would dart down and grab them. What we learned as divers is that we could hang on to this rope and we could start to swim. And, once our eyes started to adjust to the habitat and see the pearlshell, where they were quite cryptically hidden. I mean the shell, you know, makes every attempt it can to disappear into the environment. And an experienced diver would see a shape or he’d see a colour. You know, he will just see a form that would alert him to the fact that that was a pearl form.”

Debra Offer, Hookah diver:

“Back in the year 2000, I started my pearl diving career. I went out and got my open water dive ticket and I got the job. I was one of two or three other female pearl divers at the time. There’s no way in the world I thought I would be a pearl diver. I still pinch myself every now and then to think that that’s what I do. It was very overwhelming. It’s like being a kid in a candy shop. [laugh] There was so much going on around me. Marine life, amazing fan coral, sponges and fish and shells itself. I think it was a good life style. You’re out at sea for eight or nine days and you’re doing eight or nine dives a day from six in the morning until six at night. Eight drifts a day for forty and fifty minutes and then having a twenty minute surface interval, and then back in the same. Its like running a marathon, I suppose. Keep that same breathing and rhythm. Yeah, the whole time. Because otherwise you don’t want to wear your self out or run your race too short.”