192 The Pearl.
while others use no precautions whatever. Although from one to two
minutes is the time generally passed under water, yet instances are
known of four, five, and even six minutes' stay beneath the surface.
great dread of the divers is the ground-shark, a common inhabitant of
the seas in those latitudes. During the time of the fishery conjurors
stand on the shore till the boats return in the afternoon, muttering
prayers, twisting their bodies into strange attitudes, and performing
ceremonies. All this time they ought to abstain from food or drink; but
they occasionally regale themselves with toddy, till they are no longer
able to stand at their devotions. If an alarm be given by one diver,
none of the others will descend that day.
Latterly, the diving bell has been adopted, which, when it is brought into general use, will of course
much diminish the danger. On the return of the boats, they are unloaded
and the oysters left to putrify in pits or closed vessels. When these
are opened the pearls are washed from the decayed oysters, in troughs,
with sea-water. On other occasions the shells are opened immediately,
and the pearls extracted. The oysters, however, are generally sold
unopened, and as their contents are alike unknown to both buyer and
seller, the transaction takes more the form of a lottery than a
commercial exchange,—in fact, the trade has in it much of the spirit
of gambling. Many oysters contain no pearl, whilst others may produce a
pearl worth £200 or £300.