With the history of pearl diving now part of the school curriculum, finding out more about this ancient and original local industry is both fascinating and practical. Arriving at Al Zorah Marina in Ajman, signs direct you to Ajman Pearl Journey jetty, where the 13-metre Jalboot – a traditional pearl diving dhow – awaits. Now plushly furnished with plump cushions and pillows, complete with canopy for sun protection, it is a far cry from the seafaring vessel pearl divers of old experienced during a stint at sea.
Once comfortably seated, we are offered dates and coffee. Not regular coffee but unroasted and flavoured with cardamom, which is how the crew would have enjoyed it back in the day. Our guide, Tahna, certainly looks the part and is very knowledgeable about his subject. As we sail peacefully around the stunning mangroves, he begins with some general knowledge on the UAE, how it was before the discovery of oil, and also provides fascinating nuggets of information on the local area. He points out Sheikha Amna Ghurair Mosque, with its elaborate calligraphy and beautiful décor – another must-visit now added to our list.
Then we get to the seafaring stuff: life as it was on board the Jalboot when the real pearl divers would head out. “Well it wasn’t easy,” Tahna understates. “They’d spend all day in the water, from sunrise to sunset. Then spend the evenings on board, going through the oysters looking for pearls.”
Today, you are apparently as likely to find a pearl in an oyster as you are to win the lottery – about two million to one is Tahna’s estimate – but back then it was far more common. He says this is down to environmental changes, and possibly pollution. (Although, you can book the more expensive Lucky Tour with Ajman Pearl Journey, where you get to open one of their farmed oysters left to develop naturally in the sea. These have been planted with an irritant that will produce a pearl...) .
Back to life on board, we’re told that in this fairly spacious vessel, which comfortably seats 20 people, as many as 50 men would live, day in day out, for weeks at a time, eating, sleeping, and working alongside each other.
“You’d have up to 20 divers,” says Tahna. Each diver had a seep to assist him (read: make sure he didn’t drown). Then there was the boss, known as the Commander-In-Chief, often not thought of as an altruistic type. Indeed, should you succumb to the harsh conditions while at sea, the “mean ones” threw you overboard instead of returning your body to your loved ones, according to our guide. Similarly on board was the chef, who, if he didn’t like you, might burn your food, or worse, and then the singers. Their job was to keep everyone’s spirits high and, by raising their voices above the general hullabaloo onboard, remind the seeps that they had a diver in the water, so they’d be prepared to get him out sharpish.
Passengers today are treated to a live demonstration by knowledgeable crew members who model the historic dive-gear, such as the palm tree-made rope, on which is tied a rock to take the divers down, the basket around the neck for the oysters, and another rope, which was pulled to signal if they felt faint, or if sharks approached.
“There were many dangers for the divers,” says Tahna. “Shark attacks were common, some drowned as they lived on a diet of nothing but fish and dates, which meant they were undernourished and could faint. If their seep didn’t notice in time they could die. There were also a lot of diseases on board with no medicine or doctors. So, yes, not all survived being a pearl diver.”
Those that did were not very well off, either, with all the pearls given to the Commander-In-Chief, usually also the owner of the boat. The divers themselves, meanwhile, were treated little better than lackeys, diving for food for their families. Trips in the Jalboot usually lasted for two weeks to a month. Few supplies were taken, and they survived on oysters and fish.
While this is a hugely enjoyable tour, floating for an hour among the mangroves of Ajman, spotting the wildlife gliding past, enjoying the cool laps of the water, and experiencing a bygone era, the conditions of those who went before is not just important to remember but a reminder to modern families just how tough all our ancestors had it. On top of that, kids will likely love this experience, revelling in the talk of sharks and treasure, as well as enjoying the fun atmosphere on the boat, the live, interactive demonstrations, and possibly even learning some useful history into the bargain. As field trips go, we can’t think of much better.
Daily (booking essential). Dhs150 (regular tour), Dhs350 (Lucky Tour), free (children under 6). www.ajmanpearl.ae.