Negeri Sembilan’s Adom Samah was just 26 years old when he left his kampung in Lenggeng and took on a job as a pearl diver in Broome, Western Australia.
At the time Adom could not even swim. He lived miles away from the ocean which was at least a couple of hours drive.
Adom had never been in water much deeper than his body-length, but “he would learn,” said Pak Yassin, a local man who was organising jobs for men from Seremban and Negeri Sembilan to pearl-dive in Australia.
At the time, being able to swim was surprisingly not a compulsory skill required for pedal diving – you just needed a big heart, and be brave – very, very, brave.
“It was very dangerous,” said 79 year old Adom sitting on the verandah of his Lenggeng home, taking a welcome break from the garden where we caught him clipping bright red Rambutans from a large tree in his front yard.
“The water level was kept just under your chin all the time,” holding his palm to his chin indicating where the water level was, “it was held there by the air tight suit and the pressure of the oxygen that was fed to our helmet,” he said.
In 1912, records from the Broome Historical Society show, 29 divers died from various means including “diver’s paralysis.“ Back then no-one knew why divers would come out of the water in agony, then die. They were not aware that nitrogen was getting into the blood stream, crippling the brave men, with a condition known as “the bends.”
“My job was to find the pearl shell underwater and collect for injection to boost the growth. We would then replace it and wait a few months, then check the next time to see if it had grown.”
Divers at the time still used the very heavy rubber suits which had an oxygen tube attached to it, wore a big heavy circular helmet with glass plates for vision before they scoured the ocean floor for pearl shells as deep as 150 metres or more.
Divers would wear the suit the whole day and usually have flannel underwear underneath the suit, three pairs of socks and two or three sweater shirts as the water was very cold.
“We used two different suits, both made of heavy rubber but the 1/2 suit was the worst as if you bent over too far, the water could rush up past your neck and drown you,” he said, somewhat too calmly.
‘If a problem occurred, for one, or maybe two seconds you pulled the rope very hard, because one minute, then two minute of no air – finish – you are dead already,” said Adom.
There were usually two divers per boat and each diver had his own tender on board the ship. He would dress the diver and ensure the steady supply of oxygen by keeping the machine running. Just as importantly they also handled a vital rope lifeline attached to the diver when the diver was below. They needed tender hands that couldn’t relax, as a series or code of tugs on the rope from the diver below meant certain commands. It was the sole source of communication between the dark underwater world and the boat above.
If all that wasn’t dangerous enough there were frequent sightings and the occasional underwater nudge from Tiger sharks and the prevalence of man-eating White-Pointer sharks who habituate the area near Broome. Whales and large inquisitive fish like giant groupers were there too, both potentially accidentally bumping or entangling themselves with the divers oxygen hose.
Adom had a few close calls, including his oxygen tube becoming caught up in the reef and spoke about some divers picking juicy large crayfish from the ocean floor to eat later, attaching them to their waists, where they strapped their bag to collect pearl shells – the capture of lunch occasionally attracted the attention of sharks.
But for Adom most of the challenges he experienced was the ever present daily physical danger of getting “the bends.”
“Sometimes I felt rheumatic in the chest with lots of pain after just one hour diving and had leg cramps after diving – if you got sick, you got back in the water again and wait till it goes,” he said.
Adom only spent two years or so pearl-diving, earning about $300 per month and after surviving the perils of his underwater job he went on to a much safer occupation in West Australia, working 30 years for the local water supply board.
His dive partner Basir, one of more than 30 men from Lenggeng who went to work in Australia, still lives in Broome but Adom and his wife Alimah Noor call Malaysia home, although they travel regularly from Kampung Tengah in Lenggeng to Darwin and West Australia, visiting their 7 grandchildren and four children who choose to live in Australia.
As the sun hides behind a cloud Adom starts to reminisce about fellow divers and tenders that Pak Yassin signed up from the area.
”For my friend Basir and me it was a big adventure, I was only 25 years-old and going to work in another country thanks to Pak Yassin, I was so happy, it was very enjoyable,” he said.
”I don’t miss cyclones though, the wind was so strong and you could not see more than 1 metre outside from all the sand been blowing about – if you come out with sarong it gets blown away,” he laughs.
Thanks to Screen Australia for the stills from their video their video which can be seen at: