Pearl Divers of Mesopotamia and Other Free Divers

rosettemop.jpg (5152 bytes)Our tales of ocean exploration now take us halfway across the world to early Mesopotamia, to a city known as Bismya or the Lost city of Adab. It was here that James Edward Banks, an archaeologist with the University of Chicago working among the ruins in 1912, discovered conch-shell lamps and mother-of-pearl inlays in ornamental rosette stones, such as the one shown here. The estimated age of these ruins: 6500 years.

Mother of pearl is a smooth, iridescent substance, formed on the inner shell of many molluscs. Pick up any abalone shell and look inside and you will see the glimmering kaleidoscope of rainbow colors that characterizes mother of pearl. Its translucent and shimmering quality make it highly prized for jewelry, decoration, art and other objects. Many a famous cowboy is reputed to have carried a pistol with a pearl-handled grip.

According to William Beebe, the first man to descend in a bathysphere, this discovery provides the earliest evidence of people diving beneath the sea. Mother of pearl shows up extensively in the sixth dynasty of Thebes in 3200 B.C. and pearls themselves make an appearance in China in approximately 2250 B.C., more than 4000 years ago. To gather mother of pearl and pearls in the quantities described by the archaeologists that uncovered these artifacts, Beebe reasons that people had to be diving.

Free-diving has a long history in the Near and Far East and spread across the world as people migrated into Southeast Asia, Oceania and the Americas. While I am not aware of any evidence for free diving among indigenous people in the Americas, it wouldn't surprise me if they did. The need for food and the desire for riches led people to explore any nook and cranny they could and the oceans not excepted. free-divers took whatever they could find, pearls, sponges, any shellfish, urchins, fishes and even sunken treasure.

pearldiversm.jpg (1346 bytes)The first recorded mention of divers comes from Homer in Book 16 of the Iliad. Describing the nimble Patroclus, who leaps from his chariot with a spear and a rock and doesn't miss a beat, his rival Hector shouts: "How nimble is he...Yea, perchance were he on the teeming sea, this man would sate many by diving for lightly he dives from the chariot to the plains. Verily, there are divers even among the Trojans." One might assume from this passage that divers were not well respected!

Other writers, including Thucydides, Aristotle and Livy, mention divers employed for warfare, sponge-taking and treasure-finding, respectively. It is during these times, from 400 B.C. and later, that mention is made of diving chambers or, at least, upturned clay pots for providing air. Even Alexander the Great is purported to have spent time beneath the sea in some sort of chamber, conducting "marine investigations between campaigns in the east." (Beebe, 1934).

At least by the 16th century, and perhaps earlier, divers began to use various air bladders and helmets to provide protection and help them remain longer underwater. Hard-hat divers were commonplace by the turn of the 20th Century, but it wasn't until the invention of the aqualung by Jacques Cousteau and his friend Emile Gagnan in 1943 that free-diving as a commercial activity began to decline. Since that time free-diving has been transformed into a recreational activity and a sport, as we'll see below.

tsponge2.jpg (2110 bytes)Advances in diving technology extended a diver's range beneath the sea and further expanded the opportunities for profit. Commercial diving remains a serious and lucrative activity in many parts of the world, including those where diving first began. Today, commercial divers search for pearls, sponges, urchins, abalones, lobster, coral, sea snakes, tropical fishes and just about anything else you can take from the sea. An excellent photographic account of sponge divers and their deeply held religious beliefs can be found at John Stanmeyer's web page, Sponge Divers of Tarpon Springs, Florida.

But the new technologies haven't made diving any less of a risky business. Before the invention of the aqualung, the worst danger was the shark. Consider this personal account from a 38-year-old Japanese pearl diver, Iona Asai, working in the Torres Straight between Australia and New Guinea in 1937:

First time I went down I found one pearl shell and put it on the deck. Then I went down again the second time and found another pearl shell. The third time I dive and walked on the bottom. I was behind a little high place, the shark was on the other side. I never saw him and he never saw me. I saw a stone like a pearl shell on the north side, and when I turned I saw the shark six feet away from me. He opened his mouth, already I have no chance of escape from him. Then he came and bite me on the head. He felt it was too strong to swallow and put his teeth around my neck. Then he bite me and I felt his teeth go into my flesh. I put my hands around his head and squeeze his eyes until he let me go, and I make for the boat. The captain pulled me into the boat and I faint. They get some medicines from a school teacher. [from Broome Pearling History]

Although the type of shark wasn't mentioned, these waters are inhabited by reef sharks and great whites, which have been known to gnaw a few people in their time.

But the real dangers of modern-day commercial diving are not among the marine creatures. The deadly dangers exist in the technologies themselves.

As the human body descends beneath the sea, it is subject to increasing pressure, about one (1) atmosphere every 33 feet. To compensate for this pressure, the lungs must take in greater amounts of air. It is the pressure of air inside your body after all that balances the pressure of air outside your body. That's why we're not crushed by the weight of our own atmosphere (14.7 pounds every square inch of your body or about 95,500 pounds on the entire body). So as a diver goes deeper, breathing compressed air, he takes more air into his blood. As the diver ascends (rising), the water pressure becomes less and the air in his blood begins to expand (because there is less pressure on it). Normally, a diver rises at a rate that allows the your body to get rid of that extra air and everything is fine. However, if a diver rises too rapidly, then the air in his blood can form bubbles and that's where the trouble begins.

Air bubbles in your blood are not a good thing. They collect around the joints of the arms and legs and cause severe pain. In the worst cases, they cause blood vessels or your lungs to burst. This phenomenon, known as the bends or an air embolism, respectively, can cause paralysis, brain damage and death, if not recognized immediately and treated. Sometimes even that isn't enough.

The U.S. Navy has developed a set of guidelines, called decompression tables, that informs divers on the safe limits for staying underwater breathing compressed air. In developed countries, scuba diving training and an awareness of safe diving practices minimizes the dangers. Nonetheless, accidents still happen and divers require treatment in what is known as a decompression chamber. The Wrigley Institute of Marine Science at Two Harbors on Catalina Island maintains a decompression chamber for such accidents.

However, in non-industrialized countries, no such precautions or treatments exist. As scuba diving proliferates and the lure of greater monetary awards entice divers deeper for longer, the fatalities associated with scuba diving have risen dramatically. Three places in particular have drawn the interest of groups attempting to educate indigenous divers on safe diving practices: Thailand, the Philippines and Central America.

The tales of paralysis, loss of bodily functions, brain damage and death are horrific. While many divers realize that aching joints are symptomatic of a problem, some believe it's part of the job. Some seek spiritual or herbal cures rather than getting the treatment they need. Yet the efforts of organizations dedicated to assisting these people are beginning to pay off and deaths in some regions have declined.

I first learned of these grim stories from a student a couple years ago. She informed me that the Red Lobster restaurants were being criticized for buying lobster from local divers along the Mosquito coast (Costa de Mosquitoes) in Nicaragua. According to her report, the Red Lobster was exploiting these people (by offering them money for lobster) rather than insuring their safety.

The degree to which Red Lobster or any other seafood restaurant is to blame depends on where you think the responsibility lies. Does it rest with the fisherman who know they are being unsafe? Does it rest with the governments of the U.S. and Nicaragua who allow seafood to be exported and imported despite the dangers to those who catch it? Is the responsibility of the companies who distribute, sell, prepare and serve the seafood? Or is it our responsibility, as individuals, to be aware of the human and environmental ramifications of the resources we use?

However you feel, I would recommend that you take a few moments to check out the efforts that are underway to help these people. The information and images portrayed on the links below are highly educational.

As a final note to our little history of pearl diving (!), I would like to mention some of the ways that free-diving has gained popularity in modern times. The considerable improvements in masks, snorkels and fins, the required apparel of many a future oceanographer, has made it possible for just about anyone to explore and investigate the undersea world.

As much as that pleases me, there has been a negative side to increasing numbers of divers: more hunting. I abandoned my hunting and collecting activities a long time ago as I witnessed the annihilation of Florida's coral reefs in the late 60s and 70s. But I had other reasons as well: hunting distracts you from enjoying your surroundings and it attracts sharks. One of the results of increased spearfishing has been the elimination of large fishes. Some divers may argue with me but it's the big game that attracts most spearfisherman and those are the fish that get shot first. At least on a hook and line, the fish is given a fighting chance. It's also less likely that a fish who has lived long enough to grow to one-hundred-plus pounds will be caught. Personally, I miss seeing these fish when I dive and I'm sure other divers agree.

In this vein, I will mention that many places where hunting used to be acceptable are finding that they can attract more tourists over the long run by protecting their marine resources. Eco-tourism, as it has come to be known, increasingly brings dollars to regions to the world that once struggled to make a living. While this new tourism has its own drawbacks (waste disposal, resource limitation, etc), it appears to be a step in the right direction. Some eco-tourism vendors, like Aquatique in Bahrain, will even teach you how to pearl dive!

smfreediveryoram.jpg (1517 bytes)While free-diving in modern times has spawned snorkeling, spearfishing and eco-tourism, it has also given rise to another free-diving offshoot you should know about: free-diving competition. Free-diving competition involves several categories of breath-holding events. Some categories have strict rules on the amount of weight a free-diver may carry up and/or down and at least one category lets the free-diver perform the dive however they want. The "no-limits" category has produced the deepest free-dive by any human, a dive of 137 meters (449.47 feet) in June 1999. That's deep! While the French appear to be the leaders in promoting the sport, I predict that won't last. Men and women from all over the world are entering free-diving competitions. Check out the web pages I've listed below. I think you will enjoy them.

Finally, this sport of free-diving has stimulated one of my absolute favorite ocean-related movies, The Big Blue. This movie documents a free-diving competition between Jacques Mayol, a dolphin-loving Frenchman, and Enzo Maiorca, a man who hates to lose. It's on our Movie of the Week list and I hope all of you get a chance to see it. It will gives a sense of what it's like to totally connect with the sea, something like an experience I had while skin diving as a young teenager.

As a young boy in Florida, I would spend countless hours skin diving (snorkeling), checking out colorful creatures, occasionally hunting for lobster or shells or fish for my aquarium. I remember one day in particular when my mom let me skip school (I was in 10th or 11th grade) to go snorkeling at the marine science center in Riviera Beach. I was snorkeling beneath the pilings of a bridge. The pilings were always a great place to explore because there were rocks where fishes and other animals could hide. It was quite late in the afternoon and the sun was getting fairly low in the sky, creating needles of light through the translucent green water. There were a fair number of fish milling about and a school of barracuda; a kind of undersea twilight when the day fish make ready for bed and the night fish prepare to feast. I had been in the water long enough to have the shivers but not long enough to want to leave. And something came over me at that moment that I remember vividly to this day: a feeling of peace. The outside world didn't exist, only this inner one. In that brief instance,  I connected with the sea in a way that I had never before. My thoughts, my feelings, my sensations were as if I had discovered my true home. I felt safe, like I belonged. I was part of the sea. It felt right.

I have such a strong memories of that moment that I get goosebumps every time I think about it. Anyone who has spent any time skin diving or scuba diving or even surfing for recreation has some idea of the feelings of which I speak. Diving for pleasure is one of the most otherwordly experiences you can ever have. And as a result, more and more people are diving. Perhaps as in no other time, exploration of the sea has become a pastime of the masses. Whether a casual pursuit or a serious hobby, more people don masks and dip beneath the waves than ever before.

Hopefully, this lengthy narrative of the history of diving has given you some sense for its importance in human history and the history of oceanography. The threads we are starting to weave extend in many different directions and I've but mentioned a few. But I want to leave you with this one last thought question: How has diving in modern times added to the common themes of oceanography mentioned above? In other words, is diving still a strictly economic pursuit or perhaps has a new motivating factor for ocean research emerged? Think about it. I'll get back to you.

Bismaya or the Lost City of Adab by Edgar James Banks, 1912;
A fascinating account! better than Indiana Jones, if you can stand the wait for the pages to load

History of Diving: Free-diving

Broome Pearling History

Sponge Divers of Tarpon Springs, Florida

Luna Pearls, providing information on pearl diving; you may also buy Tahitian pearls online here

Spend an eco-vacation diving for pearls in Bahrain with Aquatique

Qatar, the Arabian peninsula, Bahrain's neighbor, with an equally rich maritime culture (see especially history and geography)

The Indigenous Fisherman Divers of Thailand Project: The Sea Gypsies

Sub Ocean Safety, educating non-industrialized nations in safe diving practice, especially in Central America

A program of assistance for the indigenous divers of the Philippines

AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea)

Interview with Jacques Mayol, a freediver who has a special relationship with dolphins

Umberto Pelizarri Home Page (in French, except the pictures)

Freediving Magzine

A page on Deborah Andollo, one of the few female freedivers

Loc Lefreme, who dove to 137 meters in June 1999 (pages in French)

Yoram Zekri, French-Belgian freediver, good photos

Gianluca Genoni, French freediver (pages in English available; click on British flag)

Pippin Productions, interesting info on freediving

National Association of Underwater Instructors, always putting safety first (my basic scuba certification, completed in 1972 with Norine Rouse)

Professional Association of Diving Instructors, traditionally, their emphasis has been on equipment

National Academy of Scuba Instructors, a new certifying agency, emphasis on instructor-centered teaching