Much is made of Dubai’s pearl-diving heritage, but how many residents know the history of this unique industry? Did you know, for example, that pearl diving became obsolete when Japanese entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto began to cultivate pearls for commercial purposes in the ’20s? Or that the young men who packed the small, rickety dhows could hold their breath for four or five minutes as they searched the sea bed for these natural treasures?
In an effort to learn more, I headed to the incongruous environs of the Palm Jebel Ali, a wilderness of cranes and half-built bridges. Yet there was something poignant about the fact I was about to experience one of the UAE’s most ancient pastimes in such surroundings.
Our bus pulled up to a scenic beach hut: we slipped off our footwear at the door and filed inside. We were greeted by a huge flatscreen TV, next to which stood an equally well-proportioned Emirati gentleman. This was Major Ali, our guide for the day and a descendant of a family with a proud pearl-diving history.
With the aid of the TV, Major Ali proceeded to tell us about the customs and traditions of the trade, before a rather short safety brief. This isn’t to say that Major Ali and his team were skimping on safety; we soon learned we wouldn’t be facing the same hazards encountered by the divers of yesteryear. Rather than diving to depths of up to 40 metres (as divers once did), we would only be descending four to five metres. Of course, diving always carries risks (shallow-water blackouts, for example), but we would be under the close supervision of two Scuba divers and the crew of a fully equipped rescue boat.
I was surprised to be handed a white cotton hoodie and a pair of baggy trousers: these traditional garments, we were told with no hint of humour, were to protect us from jellyfish (often found in Dubai’s waters during the warmer months, although I was assured they don’t usually sting).
Once we’d changed and trudged down to the beach, we boarded the waiting dhow to the sound of a fisherman’s chant. The air was still and the water calm, so instead of hoisting the sail and letting the wind take us out to sea, we were towed by the rescue boat. (I can only assume Major Ali deemed us physically ill-equipped to row; a shrewd decision, admittedly.) Disappointed to have been denied my Spartacus moment, I wandered the length of the dhow, admiring the rather public squat toilet beneath the captain’s bunk, the barbecue where six plump fish were grilling, and the craftsmanship of the sleek bow. Even with our crew of 15 the dhow felt full, so it was hard to imagine 70 men crammed onto the deck, as they once did.
We laid anchor and, like all good captains, Major Ali was the first in the water, checking for oysters as well as demonstrating how to use the weighted rope that lowers divers to the sea bed. I’ve never considered myself the strongest of swimmers (note: you do have to be able to swim to participate) and the idea of tying myself to a weight wasn’t too appealing. However, in spite of my speedy descent to the bottom – which initially took me by surprise – I found the contraption saved on energy that would otherwise have been used to swim to the sea bed. Getting my bearings as best I could (aided by a not-so-traditional scuba mask), I groped my way along the bottom, feeling for the rough, hard texture of oyster shells. The average adult can hold their breath for about 30 seconds, but it felt as though only milliseconds passed before my lungs started burning. Just as a mild panic began set in, I chanced upon three shells and shot back to the surface, victorious and gasping for air. On the advice of Major Ali, my second and third dives proved equally fruitful; after placing my spoils in a wicker basket, which was hoisted onto deck, I clambered aboard to examine my riches, exhausted yet excited.
There’s a one in 10 chance of finding a pearl in an oyster and, having scooped up more than 10, I was already envisaging a life of fast cars and fur coats (divers are allowed to keep their finds, though realistically, don’t expect them to be worth more than Dhs100). Major Ali demonstrated how to shuck the oysters, though after prizing open one after another, it soon became clear that my underwater exploits had been futile. It was a bad day at the office for all of us – not one pearl was found – though the experience itself was more than worth it.
As we sat down to lunch with Major Ali, I looked out at the huge, slug-like barges that had been laid to rest on the shore, and the flaming towers of the aluminium plant in the distance. The Dubai of Major Ali’s ancestors was very different to the one I know, yet I was pleased a little piece of it remained within the confines of the small bobbing dhow.
The pearl diving experience costs Dhs700 (adults), Dhs500 (children under the age of 12, who can participate in all activities except the diving itself). Tue-Sat 9am-3pm. Meet at Jumeirah Beach Hotel (04 406 8828).
Pick of the pearls
In 2011, Dubai hosted the sale of the world’s largest pearl – a drop-shaped natural pearl weighing 59.92 carats (the weight of a Dhs1 coin). It was sold for Dhs934,842 at Christie’s Dubai.