Northwestern Events Calendar


No Limits: Compressor Diving on Indonesia’s Coral Frontier

When: Wednesday, February 17, 2021
10:00 AM - 11:00 AM Central

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Elizabeth Morrissey  

Group: Equality Development and Globalization Studies (EDGS)

Co-Sponsor: Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Category: Lectures & Meetings


EDGS Graduate Lecture Series on Political Ecology

Joseph R. Klein

Department of Anthropology, UC Santa Cruz

Just beyond the shores of Kendari, the provincial capital of Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, lies a vast network of coral reefs which for decades have supplied beautiful and increasingly rare live corals for the saltwater aquariums of the global elite. To access coral and other marine products, fisherfolk in the late 20th century began putting truck tire compressors on their boats, breathing the unfiltered air through hundred-meter lengths of garden hose as an alternative to expensive SCUBA equipment or traditional breath-hold diving. The diving compressor revolutionized the marine product economy, including the collection of live coral, and fundamentally transformed what was possible for the human body at sea. 

This paper considers the embodied experiences of compressor divers who plumb the reefs around Kendari. Diving for coral, like lobster, pearls, live fish, and other luxury marine products, once offered a lifestyle of relative affluence sustained by the windfalls of cash that followed a lucky day on the water. But as the sea has been slowly emptied of life, divers are forced to search longer and dive deeper just to stay afloat, and their communities struggle to negotiate new ways of living on the water. Based on extended ethnographic research with divers at sea and onshore, this paper examines how coral collectors and their communities navigate the shifting tides of fortune on the reefs of Southeast Sulawesi.

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