Chilean shellfish divers

This project focuses on the artisanal fisheries sector in Chile. The majority of this sector is made up of divers and collectors whose catch comprises a whole host of different shellfish.

Shellfish are massive in Chile…well their capture is…the majority end up on Spanish dinner plates!

This is just a short post to show you a few pictures of what it’s like to work as a chilean shellfish diver….in this case…diving for razor clams.

Razor clams / shells

Razor clams / shells


Standard artisanal boat, normally with 3-5 workers

It’s normally an early start, but one that is determined by the tide. Once the divers are on the bottom, it is no fun trying to fight against an ebb or flood tide (slack water is always preferred).


Round breads known as Hallulas

It’s bread, bread, bread on the boat – as well as much of Chile. Bread and coffee to start the day before of work.


Many crucifixes and picture of Jesus can be found behind the helm and in the cabins of larger boats.

As with much of the UK’s maritime / fishing community, religion (in Chile it’s Catholocism) and superstition are commonplace.

The site we arrive at is a known site for razor clams. It is managed by a local syndicate of fishers and boat operators and is only fished (supposedly) by those who have licences and are part of the syndicate. This way, everyone knows who is fishing roughly where, and there is an approximate idea of fishing effort in each area.

Upon reaching the site the alpha diving flag is hoisted to partner the La Estrella Solitaria (the Chilean national flag – “The Lonely Star”) and the day begins.

The Chilean flag and the A / alpha flag that means "we are diving"

The Chilean flag and the A / alpha flag that means “we are diving”

The work gear is taken from its diesel stained bags and laid on deck for a quick drip dry. Then it’s a strip and rub down with shampoo and water to don the thick (summer ≈16mm / winter ≈ 22mm) two piece hooded wetsuits.


The diver’s regulator (mouth piece) connected to 100m of rigid hosing and an air compressor


Grab bag for the catch


Pliers used for pulling the razor clams from their holes in the sand


Thick neoprene suits to keep the divers warm in the cool waters of the Humboldt current


Two of the divers getting ready for the first dive

In such buoyant suits, the divers need a significant amount of lead to keep them from bobbing around on the surface (waist, back and legs / ankle weights). These compressed neoprene suits, although thick and sturdy-looking, actually need replacing every 3 to 4 months depending on what species is being fished and the sites that are visited (this determines how much contact a diver has with rocks and the bottom).


Leg weights to stop the legs rising above the divers head whilst swimming horizontally


A back plate of lead is also used to help keep the body horizontal whilst swimming


One diver suited and booted ready for the off (note the regulator is tied to the waistbelt and fed over the shoulder of the diver)

Once the divers are ready the air compressor is filled with fuel and fired up.


The air compressor is used to provide 3 divers with air continuously during the dive


The reserve tank at the base of the compressor gives one diver about 3 minutes of air…or three divers about 1 minute of air.

Then it’s time to dive! Regulator in, lie on the deck of the boat and a smooth plop into the water.


Regulators in. The guy in the background is the tender – the man who makes sure the diver has enough hose and air!


Divers lie on the deck of the boat for a smoother (head first) entry than stepping off


A head first plop into the water

Whilst in the water the three divers work in separate directions so as not to replicate their work. The tender who is left on the surface makes sure that the umbilical hoses don’t kink (too heavily), the compressor keeps running and the anchor does not drag and tighten the hoses of the divers…too much.


The diver’s umbilical, neatly organised (?!) on the surface ready for him to move along the sea bottom taking more hose with him


The umbilical repaired using bicycle inner tube… however, a lot of the hose was still leaking badly

When the catch bag is full, the diver pulls hard on the umbilical until the tender pays attention. The weighted diver is then pulled to the surface by the tender on the umbilical.


The tender retrieves the weighted diver by pulling in the umbilical hose


Diver approaching the surface laden with catch


Climbing back on board after the first dive for a drink and a cigarette

It seems as though health and safety in Chile exists but is rarely adhered to…at least by the fishermen. Dive decompression tables are ignored, with dive times well exceeding safety limits. Ascents as quick as the tender can pull on the umbilical (which is pretty fast) and little care about decompression sickness in general all make for a stark contrast to UK divers and work conditions. This, however, I was told “is not something to worry about” as the local dive chamber is very cheap!


One catch of razor clams from one diver (after a dive of 2hrs 45 minute)


Razor clam catch with a few extras (crabs, scallops and cockles) on the side

The whole process is repeated until a) the tide turns / gets too strong to dive b) the divers decide they have made enough money from their catch that day or c) the next site is too far away to warrant an extra dive.

When the boat arrives back at the harbour, a representative from the Chilean Fisheries Consultancy – IFOP (Instituto de Fomento Pesquero) comes to  weigh the catches (on the dock) and record the origin of the catch. This means it can hopefully be traced from origin to market.

The fishers that I was with spend half of their year fishing for shellfish, and the other fishing for octopus using harpoons. Neither easy tasks in my book. When I asked them “When do you have days off?”, the response was a rowdy laugh. When I repeated the question the answer was Christmas, Easter and when we get ill. These guys work long and hard, bring home a very modest wage and have a job that is severely limited by health / age. Once diving certificates expire and medicals are not renewed by the doctor, most become deck hands / tenders or work in the harbour.

Unfortunately, I did not manage to get on board a Loco boat for reasons I will explain another time.

This entry was published on 26/12/2012 at 01:45. It’s filed under Fisheries Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: