The Adventures of Diving for Pearl Shells

Jon Stuart’s love affair with diving began when he was a 9-year-old child in Albany. As a young man he was selected to dive for pearls – which turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime as he and the crew travelled across northern Western Australia. Over the duration of a couple of years, concluding in 1979 as head diver, Stuart was towed across the bottom of the ocean, picking up shells – and often encountering the weird, wonderful and terrifying.

This is his story (just one of hundreds) …

“The industry was full of free diving spear fishermen. We were the type of people they selected every time.”

“They chose us because we were used to the cold and wet, constant danger and countless hours in the water.”

“I walked straight into a job as a pearl diver in 1977 without ever diving on air before in my life.”

“At the time I couldn’t be happier – I enjoyed diving – it gave me a buzz and gave me great serenity (and still to this day).”

Jon said that they should never have been called pearl divers, instead pearl ‘shell’ divers because that is what they used to gather.

“It was the deckhands that opened the pearl on the deck and found the treasure.”

“Pearls were very rare.”

“We all found the odd good one – but really we were paid based per shell,” he said.

Jon Stuart – 1977, False Cape Bossut

During conversation with Jon, I found out that divers relied on their youth, incredible fitness and their savviness of the ocean.

“We had to be on the bottom of the ocean all day, every day. It was a very high-risk business, not like it is today.”

“The first drift was on the bottom at first light (not sun up), then we went back up on deck for breakfast. We then encountered two more drifts at approximately an hour each, then we went back up for morning tea.”

Jon advised that this drift and rise motion was repeated into the late afternoon.

He explained that the crew used to work based on tides, going out to sea for ten days at a time.

“If you minus the 24 hours to get down to the grounds, and 24 hours to get home – we had to dive 8 days straight. Sometimes more, before heading back for the spring tide (a tide just after a new or full moon) for a week.”

“That week provided us time to, rest, complete shore work and… party.”

Jon has plenty of stories to tell, hundreds in facts, and for all the good there was also the bad.

Interesting enough, sharks weren’t the problem.

“Sharks were never an issue. This was because the pearling grounds were predominantly flat-bottom, with no reef structure, so there is not a lot of big fish throughout the pearling grounds.”

“There are millions of small breeding fish such as coral trout, blue bone – millions of them – but they are all tiny.”

“So, sharks were the least of our problems.”

“Our biggest problem really was ourselves.”

Being a pearl diver meant being stuck in life or death situations – and remaining calm, in control and focused was often the only way to get out alive.

Jon said that hazards included whales getting caught in their airlines, aggressive snakes during mating season, stonefish (the most venomous of all fishes), dreamfish (ingesting the dreamfish can result in hallucinations that last for several days) and decompression sickness.

“Hanging off for a couple of hours at night decompressing wasn’t fun,” he said.

Jon explained that he was the 2nd person in Western Australia to get stung by an Irukandji jellyfish.

“I was stung on the chin and about half-an-hour later, the crew managed to get me on board and out of my gear.”

“I was lying on my bunk down below ship with 2 men holding me down while I was convulsing. I was conscious – but I couldn’t breathe.”

“I thought I was going to die.”

Jon said his then captain, or master as the crew called him, walked down the steps and said in his slow, laconic way – how you going mate?

“I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t answer back,” he said.

Jon explained that the captain called out to the rest of the crew to not worry.

“None of us had ever seen these jellyfish before, so no one knew how to treat me at the time.”

“On captains order the crew were instructed to give me a couple of Codral and wash it down with water.”

He said to my team members, “he should be right in half an hour.”

“And with that, he turned around, and went back up the ladder, up on deck. All I saw were his wellington boots disappearing upstairs and I thought if he isn’t afraid for me, I am not afraid.”

“And honestly, that is what got me through. I knew he was a strong reliable type and I valued his judgement. He basically calmed me down, so I didn’t go into shock.”

Jon said that when the captain got back on deck, the crew put their dingy over the side with all the fuel they had.

“We were 200 miles from Port Hedland – in the middle of nowhere.”

“The captain took off in the dinghy for 20 miles to meet another vessel that had a royal doctor medical kit on board.”

“He came hurtling back on the dinghy, and by the time he got back to the lugger I was on deck, vomiting, but alive. The worse of the poison had gone through.”

Next morning, Jon said he was back on the bottom working.

“My kidneys ached like mad for three days,” he said.

John Stuart (left) and Bruce Barker off 80-mile beach late 1978. Exhausted after 10 hours on the bottom.

In the photo above, a young Jon (left) was next to a fellow by the name of Bruce Barker, both exhausted after 10 hours on the bottom of the ocean in 1978.

“The late Bruce Barker was a wonderful chap. He was 36 when he started pearl diving and most divers are finished by the time they are in their early 30’s.”

“He become very successful and built an outstanding reputation for himself throughout the state.”

“He was a sad loss for the industry when he left us.”

Jon said that most of the guys that he dived with are now gone or unwell.

“I was one of the fortunate few who played footy until I was 50 and I still have my health.”

Jon said that after pearl diving he was a drifter.

“I drifted between Exmouth and Broome for ten years. Now I am actually spearfishing the same grounds of Albany, when I was 9-years-old. I have gone back to childhood – and 55 years later I am catching just as good as fish in the same patch.”

Concluding, I asked Jon, or the Colonel as he was known throughout industry, if there was a book on the cards any time soon…

“The food was appalling, and you had to learn to love fish and rice. There was no toilet or shower. Things were pretty grim, but they were the best adventures of my life with lots of great men.”

“I have scribbled down all these adventures. What I hope is that one day my son will find my journal and say wow, my dad had the most incredible life. Hopefully he passes it on to someone who will write them up.”

Let’s hope one day someone does write his tales from the ocean – for us mere mortals to encounter life under the sea!