A Modern Pearling Boat

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

Divers off the northwestern coast of Australia still collect wild Silver-lipped Pearl Oysters, not to harvest natural pearls, but to nucleate them and produce cultured pearls. Modern ships that are used to collect the animals echo the designs of sailing luggers used at the turn of the 20th century in the same region for harvesting mother-of-pearl. Diesel-powered vessels, like the M/V Roebuck II, move slowly over the pearl beds, dragging behind them divers equipped with modern "hookah" scuba equipment rather than cumbersome hard-hat gear of yesteryear. With hookah equipment, divers connect to a communal air tank at the surface with long air hoses. The work is still very hard--the divers make nine 45-minute dives each day in cold, murky water amid poisonous sea snakes and jellyfish.