On the coast, a community makes a precarious living from the dangerous seasonal work of diving for pearls. When Zurga tells the people that they should choose a leader, they all swear absolute loyalty to him.
Nadir arrives and is recognised by Zurga as his former friend. They remember how, on their travels together, they had both fallen in love with a priestess they encountered in a temple. For the sake of their friendship, they vowed to each other to give up any thought of a relationship with her. Now, they reaffirm their bond of friendship.
The community’s high priest, Nourabad, presents a priestess whose singing will pacify the spirits of the sky, land and sea during the current fishing season. This priestess – Leïla – is the woman with whom Zurga and Nadir were in love. She swears an oath of chastity on pain of death. Her reward for keeping the divers safe from harm will be their finest pearl. After Zurga outlines the dire consequences should she fail to keep her vow, Leïla recognises Nadir.
Nadir admits he was unable to suppress his desire for Leïla and returned to the temple to hear her song. He has continued to admire her from afar. Now hearing her song again, he approaches her, and she reveals herself to him.