Tony Robinson's book and British TV series "The Worst Jobs in History : Two Thousand Years of Miserable Employment" was a fascinating read but it did not include pearl diving largely because he focused on British history. Pearl diving definitely merits the dirty job tag on an international scale.

In the past, natural pearls were collected from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea although other places such as certain areas of the Australian coast, Sri Lanka, the Sulu Seas (Philippines) and South America were also additional sources. The picture shows Sri Lankan pearl divers circa 1870.

The diver was first lowered with a weight to the oyster beds. He collected the oysters into baskets and pulled on the cord when he was ready to be hauled up. In the old days, there were no sophisticated diving equipment available. The pearl diver had to hold his breath for up to 2-3 minutes while descending 40-50 feet, sometimes more! Pearl divers would each do 30-40 dives a day. Even if they did not drown, the effects of repeated dives sometimes resulted in divers being hauled up to the surface bleeding from the ears, noses and even eyes. The strain on their bodies also made them prone to chest and ear infections. Worse, they were also susceptible to the "bends", a condition that divers suffer from when they descend deep and ascend too fast. Nitrogen dissolves in human bodies at certain depths but is suddenly released as bubbles when divers come up too quickly - much like the opening of a can of soda. The bends causes great pain and can be fatal.

With little to no clothing, the pearl diver risked jelly fish stings and blood poisoning from coral cuts. Many of the pearl oyster beds were also located in shark or crocodile infested areas.

All in all, the chances were high that a pearl diver did not live to old age.


Ernle Bradford (1967). Four centuries of European Jewellery. Spring Books.

Lois Sherr Dubin (1987). History of Beads : From 30,000 BC to the present. Harry N. Abrams Inc.