The King Pearl Divers

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Tell A Tale
R J Dent's short story about the rivalries between the king pearl fishermen in Hawaii.

Submitted: April 16, 2016

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Submitted: April 16, 2016

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The King Pearl Divers

by R J Dent

 

A report on pearl fishing, island intrigue, rivalry and unreciprocated love.

 

My title refers to a small group of people who, here on Hawaii, dive for 'King Pearls'. These rare pearls are a bluish-grey colour and are about twice the size and value of the largest one on your Auntie Winnie's favourite pearl necklace.

Last year, oceanographers predicted that the king pearl oysters would settle in the territorial waters of Hawaii in December, ready to be harvested at the beginning of this year. January in Hawaii is hot.

I arranged an interview with one of the King Pearl divers. Despite my reservations, it was scheduled to take place on a desolate beach at an ungodly hour of the morning. I arrived early, sat and watched the sunrise, then saw my interviewee arrive.

He was Lukie, a 19 year old who had been a King Pearl diver since he was 10. Although he had agreed to the interview, I noticed that he was, at first, slightly reticent. When I asked him if this was because of pre-dive nerves, his face broke into a huge grin and he suddenly looked ten years old again.

"There's no such thing," he said.

Sometimes, when particularly animated, he managed to look very young. At other times, especially when talking about some of the other King Pearl divers, he seemed to age by about twenty years.

I asked him what the attraction of diving for the King Pearls was for him.

"It's just me, the water and the King Pearls," he said, as though that explained everything.

"How many of you dive for pearl?"

"King Pearl," he corrected. "I only dive for King Pearl."

I asked why.

He shrugged. "They are harder to get. Everyone dives for the ordinary ones."

I asked him what equipment he used. He held up his hands.

"Just these."

He went on to explain that a good King Pearl diver used no equipment at all; no knife, no torch, no holding bag and no diving suit or swimming trunks.

"I go into the water, dive down to the pearl beds, find a King Pearl oyster, then carefully and slowly stroke it open. If I am gentle enough, it will open for me and give me its pearl." He looked at me and grinned impishly. "Like a woman," he added.

I asked again how many dived for the pearls, this time stressing the words King Pearl.

He shrugged. "No more than ten," he said, seemingly reluctant to talk about it.

I sensed some sort of conflict or rivalry. I quizzed him about it.

"They use bad methods," he said. 'They' were the other King Pearl divers. According to Lukie, they cheated by using 'bad' or 'modern methods' to harvest the King Pearls. These methods included the wearing of oxygen tanks to enable them to stay on the bed longer, the use of small explosive charges to remove reluctant oysters, as well as the implementation of crowbars, knives, pliers, wet suits - in short, anything that worked quickly and efficiently. I got the impression that Lukie disliked the idea of a long-learned skill being bastardised and prostituted simply for profit.

"They do it for the money, and that is all. If they could get the money without diving, they would."

I asked him why he did it.

"For the pleasure of doing it. That is all."

I pointed out that the money must come in useful.

"Sure, but if it was just for the money I'd mow lawns, wash cars, be a labourer, anything. It's the pleasure of the challenge – and the chance to learn about the ocean."

I asked him what he had learned about the ocean.

"That it is not cruel, as people say."

"What is it then?" I asked.

"Indifferent," he replied, as though delivering a revelation. "The ocean is not alive," he continued. "It has no volition. But it is filled with living things, including people. It is always the things that are in the ocean that kill the things that are in the ocean. The ocean has never killed anyone."

I asked him when he was next going diving.

"Now," he said. "Have you ever seen a King Pearl?"

I said I hadn't. I hadn't even heard of them until a week ago.

"Then I will fetch you a King Pearl before you leave."

I thanked him and we arranged to meet later that day.

As I headed up the beach, back to my hotel, I saw Lukie shuck his clothes and run down to the ocean. I watched him wade in up to his waist, and then he was gone.

It was obviously King Pearl diving time, for others were beginning to arrive. I saw a group of the four wet-suited young men carrying huge kitbags and went over to get their views on their chosen mode of employment.

First I spoke to a 25 year old named Salvatore.

"Of course I dive for the money," he said, as though any other reason would be ludicrous.

I asked if he made a profit. He nodded enthusiastically.

"About $400 a week," he said proudly.

"Do you live well?" I asked.

"I have a big house and two cars," he said proudly. "And women like me because I can afford to spoil them – and because I am a good lover," he added lasciviously.

I asked about the competition from other divers.

Salvatore shrugged dismissively. "Nothing to worry about," he said.

Lukie's name inevitably got mentioned. A young man named Cosimo informed me that Lukie's younger brother, Marcos, had drowned whilst King Pearl diving without equipment the previous year.

"It hasn't put Lukie off though," Cosimo said. "He still dives naked and without equipment."

Salvatore put his finger to his head. "He is loco. He'll never make a good living from diving. Anyway, the King Pearl oysters will soon all be gone."

There was no sadness in his voice. He was just stating a fact.

"What then?" I asked.

Salvatore shrugged again. "Who knows? Regular pearl diving. Or salvaging maybe. What does it matter?"

I pointed to the kitbags and asked what was in them.

"Equipment," Tito, another of the group interjected, as he upended one of the bags, spilling the contents onto the sand. The others did likewise, displaying a veritable arsenal of items for their fishing. There wasn't one item a fisherman would have used.

They quickly kitted themselves out with goggles, tanks, regulators and belts, then attached hundreds of metal tools to the belts. Then they were ready.

"This is what life's all about," said Renaldo, as he strapped a thirty-centimetre machete to his thigh.

The others chorused their approval of this sentiment, slapped the shoulder of the nearest diver to them, then all ran whooping to the ocean and dived in. They disappeared immediately. The oxygen tanks had been one-hour tanks, so I knew they'd be gone for a while. No point waiting.

I left the beach, only returning to meet Lukie at our agreed time. He had harvested four King Pearls.

I asked their value and he looked out at the ocean.

"I will get about $800 for them in Honolulu." he said. "But they are worth five hours of my time, during which I saw three things I'd never seen before. I saw a shark eat a dolphin, a crab build itself a rock home, and two sponges begin their migration. That's their real value."

He then presented me with an unopened King Pearl oyster.

"Thank you," I said.

"Inside is something so valuable you might never get it out. It has to be in its own environment and you have to be gentle and patient. If you can. Or if you think it's worth the effort."

I said I'd have a photograph of it accompanying my article, a copy of which I promised to send him.

I informed him of my meeting with the others. I mentioned names. I didn't mention his brother. He nodded resignedly, suddenly looking older.

"I saw them down there," he said sadly. "They were taking them all. Soon there will be no more King Pearl oysters."

I asked him what he'd do then.

"Go where there are other King Pearls," he said without hesitation. "Once you've dived for King Pearl, you could never be happy changing to something less beautiful."

It was integrity. That was his credo, although he may not have known it.

"It's all about integrity," he said suddenly. "I should probably be too young to know that, but I do know it. I learned it from there," he said, pointing to the warm blue ocean.

I nodded. He was nineteen. There was still lots to learn. King Pearl diving without equipment is only one method.

 

*

 

The King Pearl Divers

Copyright © R J Dent (2009 & 2016)

 

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