Where Have All The Pearls Gone?

by E.R. Cross

Diving today is of international significance. Commercial dives contribute to building most infrastructures needed to promote commerce on a worldwide basis. Recreational divers enjoy the sights and sounds of almost all areas; including many once reserved for the open sea divers (harvest of sea products). Perhaps this is the reason several letters have been received during the past year regarding the areas that once produced vast numbers of rare and valuable pearls. Readers wrote they had been diving in the Pearl Islands off Panama and in the Sea of Cortez off La Paz. My question is: What happened to all the pearl shells once found in these areas?

Rare and valuable pearls have been found in nearly all fresh and marine waters that produce mollusks having nacreous shell coatings. Many rivers that once produced abundant pearls are now impounded by dams, are polluted or both. Except in pearl shell farms, pearl producing shells are not present or are stunted and do not produce quality pearls. Most marine pearl shell areas were so overharvested the natural resource did not survive. Predominately the harvest was pearl shell. Pearls were incidental and were usually the property of the diver who found them.

In addition to the waters off Panama and the Sea of Cortez, great pearling areas included the Arabian Gulf (particularly in the Bahrain Island area), the waters off the northwestern coasts of Australia, Ceylon, the East Indies, in the Sulu Sea area of the Philippines and many of the islands throughout French Polynesia (especially in the Tuamotu archipelago). Except for pearl farms, the only areas that produce pearls to any extent today are some of the atolls in the Tuamotus and off Australia. Even in these areas cultured pearls are becoming big business.

The pearling industry of Panama was at its height more than 400 years ago. Great quantities of valuable pearls were harvested in the Perlas Islands. One pearl, then the largest one in the world, weighed 250 carats and was valued at 150,000 pesos. The number and variety of pearls were so great that this trade became one of the most prolific sources of wealth in Panama.

In 1587, Spain imported 600 pounds of pearls, many of them rivaling the choicest specimens found in Ceylon or the East Indies. During the next several years, owing to overfishing, pearl diving fell off as the beds rapidly became exhausted.

In 1855, pearl fisheries off La Paz were not much different than those of other indigenous diving areas of that year and of today. They utilized, of course, breathhold divers. In Bancroft Works (Volume XVI, pages 758 and 759), pearl diving is described: Expeditions have been until late (1856) fitted out at Guaymas, each vessel of from 15 to 30 tons burden. Each vessel carried from 30 to 50 divers, usually Yaqui Indians, in charge of an armador. They are, as a rule, paid a certain share of the catch. The regular season lasts from July to September. When the vessel has been brought to anchor over an oyster-bed the divers begin their work. They continue to dive for two hours in the morning and for three hours in the afternoon.

Each had a net fastened to his waist for the reception of the oysters. The divers carried in their hands a short stick, pointed at each end, with which to dislodge his prey from the rocks. They also had to defend themselves from their dreaded enemies, the shark and the devil-fish [Manta Ray]. After the division, the oysters were opened to look for pearls, beginning with the owners share. The camps on shore were the scene of drunkenness, debauchery, and strife.

In the 1855 pearling season in the La Paz-Loreto-Mulege beds, there were 25 armadas of pearling vessels (I translate this as fleets); 368 divers and 49 canoes, plus 20 smaller launches and other boats. The divers harvested 6,900 quintals of shells valued at $13,500 and which contained $23,800 in pearls. Note: A quintal was 100 and 130 pounds. The value of unopened shells averaged about $5.58 per quintal.

The same writer estimates that during the 277 years the Spanish conducted pearling operations, from 1580 to 1857, the 1,911,300 quintals of shells taken from California waters contained 2,770 pounds of pearls valued at $5,540,000. More recent information indicates the average catch for the season returned a net profit of $20,000, with an invested capitol of $16,000 and a force of 400 divers divided among two dozen vessels. Traders in La Paz offered $17 per ounce for seed pearls and as much as $1,200 for choice pearls.

In all those years of pearl shell diving from Panama to Mexico, there were no records of divers suffering from diseases such as the Paumotan taravana. The greatest fear of these divers was of sharks and the giant Manta Ray. There were records of shark attacks. We know from experience that mantas are not likely to attack but pearl divers feared them because of their size. Also, this giant fish seemed to have a tendency to panic when its path was obstructed. A few hundred pounds of fish in a panic mode can be dangerous.

Records indicated a soldier named Osio created a considerable stir because of his success as a pearler. In 1743, he obtained 127 pounds of pearls; the following year, 275 pounds. Most of his pearls came from the beds north of Mulege. He presented the Spanish queen with a necklace of great value of alternately round and oval pearls. The royal fifth (a tax on pearling operations), increased to $12,000 annually.

The pearl fisheries along the Pacific Coast of Mexico were, from the earliest times of Spanish occupation, a source of profit. One of the richest early pearling areas frequented by modern recreational divers was in the southern part of the Sea of Cortez, from Mulege in the North to Cabo San Lucas; particularly off La Paz. The early years of harvesting the resources of pearl fisheries, together with corals, oysters, clams, sponges and shells of other kinds, produced $150,000 annually. Lack of conservation measures caused a near total disappearance of the resources.

In some areas, such as parts of Mexico where pearl oysters were not indigenous, and in Hawaii, shells have been introduced. Other shells of commercial value, such as the Trochus Shell (Trocus nilloticus) were also introduced. These shells are occasionally found by divers. They should not be harvested since they are an endangered species. The expectancy of finding a pearl of any kind in a pearl shell is about 1 in 1,000. A rare, valuable pearl occurs about 1 in 1,000 pearls. It is far better to leave those that have matured to produce more pearl shells for the future harvest.

About 1854, the presence of abalone off the northern coasts of Baja California attracted Chinese fishermen. Other fisheries of Baja California included seasonal and almost temporary harvest of whales and seals. At one time there were reportedly 30 such fishing camps employing nearly 2,000 workers. The whaling and peltry industries were nearly exhausted owing to overharvesting and were virtually abandoned 100 years ago.

Except possibly the quest for treasure of gold and silver, no other undersea quest is as compulsive as is that for pearls. And so it has been for perhaps 3,000 years. Like other treasures, pearls are declining rapidly. However, there is a difference. Contrary to sunken treasure, pearl producing shells are a renewable resource. By responsible diving habits the resource can be renewed and a pearl bed can be enjoyed by all divers.

Dive Education on Bonaire: Sand Dollar Dive & Photo Bonaire and Lifeguard Systems are featuring several excellent classes this December. Enjoy a vacation and enhance your diving skills at the same time. Beginning December 1 through 4, the following workshops will be held: Buoyancy Control I, II and III (teaching the secrets of balance in the water); and Buoyancy Control Instructor Training (teaching instructors to teach Buoyancy Control I through III). The cost for all four days is $350 and includes training materials.

In addition to these workshops, Advanced Rescue Challenge, Field Neurological Evaluation and Advanced Oxygen Administration will be offered at additional costs. Whether novice or expert, everyone can benefit from these classes and have a little fun at the same time.

For more information, contact Lifeguard Systems, P.O. Box 548, Hurley, NY 12443, phone/fax (914) 331-3383 or check out the Web site at www.teamlgs.com.

Don Fosters Dive Cayman Up-date: Don Fosters Dive Cayman U.S. reservation and sales office has moved to Miami.

The toll free number will ring in the offices of its new sales representative, Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas. The new U.S. mailing address, phone and fax number are: Don Fosters Dive Cayman, Ltd., c/o Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas, 4500 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 320, Miami, FL 33137; (800) 83-DIVER, (305) 438-4222, (305) 438-4220 (fax).

Please send all correspondence and payments to the new address. The new agents will be able to answer all of the questions guests have regarding reservations and payment processing. Fosters believes this change will better serve guests planning future dive vacations to Grand Cayman.