Pearl Shell Divers

An Oral History on film.
Produced by Garry Kerr.

Pearl divers

These guys were crazy!! Having just done a three-day hard-hat course, I am of course an expert on the matter, and clearly recognise the dangers that the early pearl divers faced. But did they know of the dangers! They saw the results of the bends but did they know how to prevent them? Were they so desperate to earn a living that they had to face the unknown ‘terrors of the deep’ – the sharks, huge groupers and giant clams? Garry Kerr’s excellent DVD answers these questions through the candid, fascinating, interviews with some of the men who donned a hard-hat on Thursday Island after the war – after the Japanese, who had dominated the pearling industry prior to the Pacific War, had departed the island. You really warm to these men who clearly did not do it just for the money – it was clearly an exciting, adventurous way of life. What makes this DVD all the more fascinating is the excellent still and movie footage of the divers – being dressed, underwater, raising their ‘catch’ of the eagerly sought Mother of Pearl. To see the equipment and the men using it is, to use the modern generation buzzword in its true context – awesome. Of course I am no expert on standard dress, but what little I know certainly assists in understanding what these men went through. What is particularly incredible, and would normally be missed by the general public viewer, is that these pearl divers did not wear full diving dress; they simply went down in what appears to be their dungarees or overalls, and balanced the heavy copper helmet over their heads just before they slipped off the ladder. Their argument was that if there was any danger, they could simply pop out from under the helmet and head for the surface unaided by surface tenders. They thought that the heavy dress, as worn by the divers at Broome, was cumbersome.  Some later relented, partly anyway, and wore ‘half dress’; where the helmet and breastplate was attached to an upper body suit that was sealed at the waist. This gave them better in-water mobility that the full suit, but it still ‘trapped’ them inside the helmet if anything did go wrong. The pearlimg industry at Thursday Island lasted not much more than a decade after the end of the Pacific war as plastics outstripped the need for mother of pearl. We must be grateful to Garry Kerr for recording the memories of these most courageous divers now well into their twilight years. Of further interest in the documentary movie is several very interesting extracts of a 1970s government film unit documentary called ‘Pearlers of the Coral Seas’, and the famous Chips Rafferty film ‘King of the Coral Sea’, which, incidentally, gave Rod Taylor his start. The documentary goes for sixty minutes; there is also an addition fifty minutes of interviews. And as a bonus we have the innimitable Frank Zeigler from Professional Diving Services at Portland commenting on health and hazard issues, giving an excellent lucid account of the bends and nitrogen narcosis. A wonderful record for anyone interested in the pearling industry and especially in the latters years of commercial hard-hat diving.

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