Diving into history in Australia's pearl capital

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Retired pearl diver Ahmat Bin Fadal remembers vividly the moment he almost died underwater 50 years

diving-into-history-in-australia-and-039;s-pearl-capital photo 1 Photo: Broome pearl diver Ahmat Bin Fadal prepares to put his copper diving helmet on. (Supplied: Broome Historical Society)

Retired pearl diver Ahmat Bin Fadal remembers vividly the moment he almost died underwater fifty years ago.

He was starting to resurface when a workmate on the lugger accidentally cut off his oxygen.

Mr Bin Fadal, 77, said his mother's face appeared in the glass of his round metal helmet before he blacked out.

His torso tightened, then he saw his mother's image and the Arabic word for God.

"I fade away and then suddenly people shake me from sleep" Mr Bin Fadel said.

After emigrating from Singapore as a 22-year-old, Mr Bin Fadal joined a small group of divers in the pearl town of Broome who wore the bulky suits and round metal helmets used to gather pearl oysters since the late 1800s.

The equipment may have been cutting edge when first introduced, but Mr Bin Fadel found there wasn't a day under the waves enclosed in rubber, copper and brass, when he didn't fear death.

"When they put the helmet on I think dead or alive, every day dead or alive?' he said.

But with shells providing an income, he focused on collecting as many as possible from the seabed.

"And when they start to put on the glass then I don't think dead or alive I think of the shell."

Hard hat brings happy memories

Mr Bin Fadal and four other retired divers were recently brought together at Shinju Matsuri, Broome's festival of the pearl, for a demonstration of the old equipment by dive history enthusiast Peter McMahon.

He had the suit, helmet and boots, which weigh about 80 kilograms, freighted to Broome. The demonstration was in the calm water of a resort swimming pool.

diving-into-history-in-australia-and-039;s-pearl-capital photo 2 Photo: Retired pearl divers Akira Masuda, Ahmat Bin Fadal, Yoshihiro (Nicky) Akune, Eddie Roe, and Freddy Corpus with Peter McMahon. (ABC Kimberley: Cecile O'Connor)

Mr McMahon, from the Fremantle Sailing Club's dive section, said the suits and helmets were used from the 1860s to the early 1970s.

"They sat around for quite a while after that and then enthusiasts started to get them out again and just use them for recreational use."

The work was dangerous. Records from Broome's Historical Society show in just 1912, 29 divers died from 'diver's paralysis' in the local pearl industry.

"A lot of divers in the early days died with the bends," Mr McMahon said.

"They had no way of knowing what the bends was, what it was doing with the nitrogen getting into the blood stream and divers would come out of the water in pain, in crippling pain and dying from it."

Decades after retiring Ahmat Bin Fadal smiles remembering his time as a diver.

And he was keen to try on a helmet for old time's sake.

"My memory come especially when I held the helmet after so many years. I carry the helmet and I'm very very happy."

And half a century after coming so close to death, he puts on the helmet and laughs like a man given a second chance at life.

"No, not frightening today."

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Article Diving into history in Australia's pearl capital compiled by Original article here

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