lutruwita – Tasmanian Aboriginal abalone diving

On the wall in the PIC office is a print of a painting by Palawa kani artist, Annie Ellis. It pictures a group of women divers gathering Tasmanian greenlip abalone. The story behind it is a fascinating one.

In an earlier article I wrote about the Japanese traditional abalone fisheries, which involved a long history of women divers, called Ama. This is still the case, as it is in South Korea. On the west coast of the US native American women have also been reported as usually responsible for gathering shellfish.

How and why the tradition and practice of women divers came about is uncertain.

But a plausible current explanation is simply that women were better adapted to diving as they tend to have higher sub cutaneous fat levels, and so can withstand colder sea temperatures for longer than men.

So on a recent trip to Tasmania it was fascinating to learn some of the history of abalone and seafood diving by the aboriginal people of lutruwita/Tasmania in “sea country” as the ocean is called by them. This was also discussed by Bryan Denny at this years International Abalone Symposium.

Image 2: D’encastreaux picture of diving scene Tasmanian aboriginal seasonally relied on a variety of wildfoods. But seafood was a significant part of the diet, importantly lobster and shellfish were available year round on the more sheltered eastern coasts. This can be seen in their coastal “living spaces” (middens is not a term used) where tens of thousands of years of shells and bones are seen. Most contain abalone shells in quantity.

Once again diving for seafood was the domain of women.

And very good divers they were by tradition and historic accounts. In 1773 the French naturalist, Jacques Labillardiere, noted that Tasmanian women could remain submerged for twice as long as the best French divers.

On mainland Australia coastal aboriginal communities have similar traditions of women divers.

So this was a pretty widespread customary practice.

Image 4: Picture of woven bag I imagine this arrangement also helped achieve neutral or negative buoyancy as the weight of catch in the catch bag counteracted the buoyancy of held breath.

Aboriginal women freedivers gathering seafood would characteristically have shaved or close cropped hair. I was told this was for ease of care and cleaning , and ease in the water, but also importantly due to the fear of entanglement with kelp fronds in the seaweed forests typically surrounding abalone beds.

Women also used natural ochre to get a red colour in their hair as adornment and for ceremony.

The sea temperature range around Tasmania is similar to here, temperate not tropical. So seal fat would be applied to the body before diving by the women as extra insulation. Women would learn swimming and diving as children, and so were famously good swimmers. A fact noted in tradition and by early European explorers and settlers.

Image 3: Picture of kelp stitched water vessel When diving the women would gear up with a catch basket, skilfully woven from plaited grasses, slung over their left shoulder so it hung under the left arm or around the neck. For prising abalone off the reef a shaped wooden stick was used, often carried between the teeth until needed. Once abs were found the abalone “chisel” was grasped in the right hand and the removed ab picked up in the left and put in the basket.

The species dived for were of course abalone, but also rock lobster, turban shells and other shellfish for food. Though shells would also be collected at low tide to craft jewellery from. Of particular importance was the gathering of broad fronded bull kelp which was beautifully crafted by the divers into water carrying vessels.

How successful were they ?

This from an early settler – “ the females in general are very adept swimmers and are enabled to procure a surprising quantity of shellfish upon the single immersion in the water.”-G A RobinsonBruny Island , 1829 Reports from the 19th century were that the Tasmanian divers worked “..quite deep waters..” and pretty far from shore at times. These longer swims were assisted by a technique employed of making natural kelp floats. This was done by twisting up bladder kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) fronds and their characteristic small gas bladders into a tight bouyant mass, which would be used as a swim float or towed using the long stems as a rope.

Image 6: Sea country tucker

The abalone caught and brought ashore were apparently cooked fresh by roasting over coals.

The Europeans settling Tasmania called abalone “muttonfish”, which was a name used in New Zealand also. But it was apparently not a popular food item being seen as tough and tasteless.

How times have changed !

Nowadays the abalone fishery is mostly a commercial one, and there are palawa aboriginal abalone divers involved still. These are mostly men. But the tradition of women freedivers is still strong and there exists a very proud heritage of that. If you find yourself in Tasmania fishing or diving, its worth taking the time to understand the rich 40,000 year old tradition of fishing and diving by that Islands “tangata whenua wahine.” 

Image 5: Aboriginal women freedivers through the eyes of French explorers” sauvages du Cap de Diemen (Natives preparing a meal from the sea). Drawn by Jean Piron in 1817. Engraving by Jacques Louis Copia. National Library of Australia

“The tradition and culture of women as the divers and abalone harvesters in Pacific Rim places like Japan, South Korea and Australia is a fascinating one, and doesn’t seem particularly well studied. It would be interesting to know if Maori have any similar tradition”. Crimpy

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One Response

  1. Corrections to the article
    – palawa kani is the name of a ‘language’, not the cultural identity of a person.
    – ‘tangata whenua wahine’ is from Aotearoa (New Zealand), not Tasmania (Trouwunna)
    – Aboriginal should always have a capital A, regardless of its location within a sentence.

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