What could possibly connect the breathing tube of the underwater swimmer and the lowest-pitched musical instrument in the brass family? The answer lies in a conversation between brothers Paul, Raymond, Roger and Edmond Pulvénis, who began spearfishing recreationally in the early 1930s and who are the subjects of this biography. Suffice to say Roger Pulvénis has been called “the father of underwater hunting”, while Raymond Pulvénis is credited with writing the very first spearfishing book to appear in the French-speaking world. Both contributed significantly to the early evolution and adoption of the diving mask and the breathing tube.

The Pulvénis family lived on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, migrating from Mauritius to France when the brothers were no longer children. Their first destination was the Paris suburb of Fontenay-sous-Bois before relocating to the south of France where they found a place to live in the city of Nice on the Mediterranean Sea. Paul, Raymond and Edmond Pulvénis eventually went their separate ways, leaving Roger behind in Nice.

It all began in summer 1930 off the Mediterranean island of Port-Cros, where the Pulvénis family anchored their boat in a cove next to another vessel whose deck was strewn with various tools for engine repairs. On a whim, Roger grabbed a pair of welder’s goggles, snapped them on and plunged overboard. Less than six metres down, he watched as several seabream performed what resembled a ritual dance around a huge rock. Back in Nice, intent on repeating the experience and equipped with identical goggles that bored into his eye sockets, he dived underwater at a spot off Nice’s Bay of Angels, where shoals of bass and mullet roamed about.

Turning his attention to catching one of these fish, Roger speculated whether he could launch a spear to transfix his quarry. He approached his physics-savvy neighbour, who told him that no underwater projectile would be effective because the aquatic medium was incompressible. Undeterred, Roger armed a spring-action Eureka pistol with a metal-tipped wooden dart, which promptly floated to the surface after the trigger was pulled. Then he fitted a modified bicycle pump with a steel spear and a spring so strong that the front of the contraption ripped away when it was released. Perseverance won in the end, however, when he skewered a 10-cm mullet with a spear after reinforcing another pump to deliver the missile. Such was the birth of underwater hunting.

One of the very first underwater guns in the hand of its inventor

Roger spent the following months designing and manufacturing a spring-action gun made from a long copper tube, without a handgrip but fitted with a clever trigger mechanism. A stainless-steel coil spring propelled the 90-cm spear, which was secured with a 15-metre cord wound around a reel attached to the rear of the weapon. He built three more identical guns for his brothers. During the summer, the young men sailed to the Lérins islands, Saint-Raphaël and Port-Cros, where extensive virgin underwater hunting grounds awaited them. In the evening, they anchored their boat in a creek, camped on a beach and lit a wood fire to cook the fish they had caught.

Back then, the Pulvénis brothers hunted with minimal equipment. As well as the gun and the goggles, they deployed a curved length of garden hose to breathe through, tying it to the goggles with string. A sheathed knife hung from their swimsuit waistbands to cut the spear cord when necessary or to dispatch a wounded quarry. Strong espadrilles completed the outfit, enabling them to go ashore and store each catch within the rocks. Although they had heard about the first modern swim fins invented by Louis de Corlieu, this technical advance did not immediately appeal to them. According to the French-speaking world’s very first underwater hunting book, written by another brother at Roger’s behest, such foot appendages were cumbersome and of limited use.

Having chanced upon a newspaper illustration of Japanese “Ama” pearl-diving women wearing what resembled bamboo and glass portholes over their faces, Roger constructed his first mask out of copper, fixing rubber beading around the rim for a leaktight seal. He topped the device with a pair of rubber enema bulbs, which were supposed to squeeze air into the mask interior to relieve water pressure on the face.

An anatomical mouthpiece designed to eliminate jaw cramps was attached later to the demand end of the garden hose supplying the brothers with air when face downwards in the water. One outstanding issue was the naming of this breathing tube, which the Pulvénises discussed during the intermission at a cinema showing a western starring Gary Cooper. One brother suggested calling the device a “tuba”, which may have been in tribute to Gary Cooper’s performance as tuba-playing Longfellow Deeds in the 1936 movie Mr Deeds goes to town. Whatever its origin, “tuba” is now the word for “snorkel” across the French-speaking world.