Article about pearl diving by Peter Donegan

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Title: Article about pearl diving by Peter Donegan
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Authors: Peter Innes Donegan
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License: Public Domain Mark This work is free of known copyright restrictions.
Related people: Peter Innes Donegan
Related places: Broome Western Australia
Keywords: H.M. Wilson Archives

Transcription by JH: File:1930s Broome Peter Donegan diving suit.pdf.[TODO – Finish proofreading from OCR.]


Written by Peter I. Donegan

[no date]

A short jetty leads out over the shelly pink sand and stands up to its ankles in the most glorious blue water you could ever imagine. Makes one wish that one could preserve its colour in crystal jars forever. The small waves swish up and fall back with a tinkle and a whirr of tiny shells — Neptun's delicate pottery, broken into a thousand fragments glintering in the blaze of the tropic sun.

At the end of this jetty, a short derrick, with creaking rusty iron work a piece or two of chain, odd scraps of rope, and beneath the swinging beam, a lugger gently rises and falls with the movement of the fast incoming tide.

On board we go, you and I, over a dipping plank to serve as a gangway, and step down over the gunwale, not quite a foot high, little enough protection in heavy weather, but then, we,re not sailors, or pearl divers, w_re only visitors, landlubbers, who have been invited to witness the trying-out of a new pumping outfit, installed in this little shîp. We're early, so let's sit on the low rail until the crew arrive and smoke a cigarette.

Here they are now, sturdy _aps in white duch trousers and sweaters or singlets, sandals and pith helmets. A white man, the engineer responsible for the working of the engine and gear, a couple of darh fellows carrying a coiled hose, rope, diving dress and helmet, a canvas kit bag, a dozen boMles of beer in a case, and a bloch of ice in a bag.

There is much talhing in a strange tongue, much of it, the engine starts somewhere below, in, or under a hatch, a buchet is produced from another hatch, the ice is smashed int_ the bu_het, an_ the b0tt_es _isp_se_ therein. 0ff we g0, with a s)ight tremb_îng _f the ship, and a lazy plunging of the bow, and purring of the engine, bennreen clumps of mangroves, f1oating their leaves on the magic blue water.

Past other boats _t anchorJ our cameras click, blach Broome luggers with a white painted strip at the water line, their large registration numbers on either side, BN, and a number and their names, Heather, or Elsie or Marîe on the stern.

Now, just look back at the township of Broome. Let your eyes run across the creamy wake, churned by our movement, to a pîn_ beach, red sand hìlls, w_ìte roofs and green trees, dashed with the red of the Poinciana flonrer/ and over all, the hot sun, and the blue shy, and the horizon rimmed round with tumbled clouds, grey-white and low down the ever-present cockeye clouds.

Now the real object of our trip. The water is deep - some twen_ feet or more - deep, if you consider that at this very spot, just six hours before, you and I were wading in six inches of water gathering shells and we are now half a mile off shore.

An_ whi_e we've been s0ahing up thîs c0I0uT, an_ c_iching our cameTas at it - in vain - as we find later on - the liMle yellow chaps and the engineer have been getting on with the job. The engine works well - the pump îs perfect and one ofthe boys is preparing to do down. He strips down to shorts and singlet, then from the hit bag come long woollen

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stochings, right to the thigh — then a woollen shirt, long sleeves and tight fitting and low waisted — more stockings, more shirts, stockings and shirts and stockings — it's cold after an hour below. He is assisted into the rubberized canvas outer suit, huge leaden soled boots strapped on, a brass corselet affair bolted over his shoulders — then down onto the rungs of a short rope ladder trailing by the side or the boat, his arms hanging into [illegible]  and supporting him. Next a half hundred weight of lead on his bach and again on his chest in flat lumps, slung on hooks and tied round his waîit. His hands are [illegible]  having been soaped and forced thro' the narrow rubber cuffs of the suit. And all this time they're talking and laughing and consuming iced beer. 'Have beer, Mistah?' 'Thanks boy, certainly'. Now the next thing is the helmet a large copper dome with a circular window at each side and one în front. To this is connected the air hose and a _îst secures the dome to the suit. The diver issues his instructíons thrd the front hole, as yet unscrewed - is then closed up - everything is cheched over, there is a splash and a híssing and bubbIíng ofair and froth, and the bu_bous, goggIíng ngure sinhs sIow_y in a _urry of foam. Bubbles come up from the end of the trailing air hose, îndicting the position ofthe diver. More bubbles - lots ofthem - a commotion on the surface - the straightening out of the air line and the grotesque monstrous figure shoots waist high aut o_ the _ater in a spout of his o_n mahing. __ovvn up an_ _isten_e_ he waves a signal to the boat and slowly sinks with a g4rgling hiss, And in our excitement we forgot our cameras.

_rink, Mistah?' _es, thanhs, certainl_. To think that these men do it regularly and thinh nothing of it. Why, our own hearts are th4mping with the thrill of it.

Up comes our man - is hauled aboard and divests himself of his cumbrous suit. Beer is consumed. _es, thanhs'. Another boy gets ready- In the meantime the lugger circles s_ow_y, gu__s whee_ Toun_ the _ippîng m_sts overhe__, the sun beats hotter an_ the b_ue ismore intense.

This boy goes down/ comes up, reports all is well, the air is cool, he says and only slightly smelling of oil. This is thirs_ weather, and what fun this is, to sit on the rail/ and sway with the ship, watch before our eyes this really remarhable evidence of maTis efforts to rifle the treasure chest of Nature.

Well, now we're going home. It's been a great afternoon. What? Me go down? Hell no. WhaT? Only 10 ft o_ waTer. Well, any_ow, it would make a good pho_o _o send home. Mother's only son - in deep sea diving suit! What a struggle to slip my hands thro' the cuffs. Well, now I am going down. The suit is clammy inside - has been leaking slightly. I am perspiring profusely. T_ anything once. Over the side and onto the ladder. All I have to do is to Ieave the ?? on tJJe side or the head piece open tiJJ l reach the bottom, then slowly close it until the pressure îs enough to keep the pressure ofthe water from squeezing me in the suit. I am receiving final instructions thrd the circular hole in front of my face- My own voice is loud and tinny in this dome - lihe shouting in a cave, you hnow the sort of cave that you go into, can't find the entrance. Where all the crew were just mildly interested before, they are heen now. I receive instructions from all ofthem in their respective mother tongue - with much sign language thrown in. lust grin and looh as thd I lîke all this. I feel that it is almost an international situation. If l had a small Union _ach in one hand and the Blue Ensign in the other, I'd wave them as I sank.

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Now the glass window is screwed up with a final sort of clang. Two sharp taps on the helmet and I'm to let go and jump, All right, I'll be all right. Perspiration trickles into my eyes and I attempt to brush it away with my left hand. Horror! I can't! Then, tap, tap - and I let go all hold and go over bachwards with a splash that I can see and not hear. For all l can hear is tl1e _'ush and hiss or the air in the heln1et in one side and o4t the other. I wonder if I'm ge_îng enough, and breath deep, long breaths of warmísh mechanical air. But why are_t I sinhing? Here I am, lihe some bloated monster, blimping agaînst the side of the boat, on my back and loohing out of my window about 2 above my nose - seem to see the gesticulating hands and mouthing grinnîng faces of all the laps in the world - lihe those curious Oriental pictures, that you can hang upside down and never hnow the difference. Now I'm off - downwards - slowly, slonFly, slowly - am upright now, right hand on the valve - tense, my heart goîng lihe a hammer. The loveliest feeling in the world I'm sure - can't hear - cant' speah to anyone and now, can't see anyone - onIy the bIack bottom ofthe bIack huI_ thrd the pale green transIucence, fading slowly away overhead. The words of the more or less popular dit_ ?? thro' my (by now) aching head, So take your last looh, at sunshine and brook'. I hnow now how Alice in Wonderland felt when she tumbled down the rabbît burrow, Indeed I do feel so queer', an_ hovv _ novîce p_r_chute jumper _ou__ fee_.

All this tahes time to wrîte - it happened much quicker. The only indication of my downward motion was the apparent upward movement of the tiny particles of sand - small submarine dust before my eyes, and all the while the light fading - from the green of a peeled grape to a heavy pressing sense_?] darhness - and my legs and body were as thd in the ever increasing clutch of an enveloping closing _?I pain - the water pressing inward on the suit. I reach the bottom with a gentle bump - the movement of the particles ceases - I am way down in the depths of the dar_ green ocean - all ten feet of them - a_one. _ut ___ this time _ h_ve been s_ying to myse_f, oveT _n_ over - _rontwar_s to close - back to open'. With my right hand on the valve - now is the tîme. Fronnnrards to close - but nothing seems to happen, except that the roaring gets louder and the blood pumps in my ears. How they ache. Then the particles move down, my leaden feet leave the bottom, faster and faster/ the light becomes increasingly paler, What the hell? Whoosh - and I'm up and out, waist high - ther_s the boat and the gesticulating crew. The sun and the waves, but I can't see them, for I'm lying face down, and feet down, being ignominîously towed aboard, the seat of the suit well innated like a large grey balloon. Up on the ladder with a heave on the rope, more hands and faces thro' my windows. _ome on, someone - undo me quich Off comes __e fronT glass wiT_ a rat_le - one long gasp of fresh air and voices, laughing and noisy at my expense.

You closed the valve too quich; they tell me. Well, I hnow that now. Let's get out of it. _ry ît more graduaJly tJJjs time ThJs tîme? HeJp! VVit_ a head lihe mJne? The front cover is on again. Tap, tap, tap on the dome. And down, down, down - all over again. With the same lost feeling and the same splitting headache- They thought I wanted to stop down there - how absolutely wrong of those sturdy _aps - how wrong- Even if I'd sunh for the last time with my little _ags waving in each hand, they might never have guessed just why I accepted their unwitting challenge. So now, I think that you and I could do with some refreshment. _ours? Oh, thanks".