The website for Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara tells us that we’d be able to keep any pearls we found while pearl diving, but my colleagues remained unconvinced. Time Out Dubai head of digital content Matt Fortune was sure that any oysters we did find would have been planted there to delight unsuspecting tourists. And if we did find any, Patrick Littlejohn, our director of photography, questioned why they let us just keep such valuable, natural pearls. The whole thing seemed suspicious.
Nevertheless, I was hopeful. Pearl diving, after all, was once a huge part of local life in the emirates. The website of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, tells of a single pearl sold in the 1920s for the equivalent of Dhs1,936,496, and over Arabic coffee and Bani Yas-grown dates, we’re shown a map of all the known pearl beds in the UAE (there are hundreds). Surely we’ll find some. The map practically makes it look like you couldn’t step into the Arabian Gulf without standing on an oyster.
We’re joined by Major Ali Al Suweidi, the president of Emirates Marine Environmental Group. His family’s heritage is closely linked to the island and its history, and his enthusiastic pride is infectious. As we push back from the dock, he leads us in a traditional chant with vigour (the rest of us awkwardly read from a slip of paper), and invites us to recline on cushions as we sail out to sea. He recounts epic tales of Sheikhs, Sheikhas, royal families and palaces. Everything sounds like a mysterious, ancient legend; pearl divers poignantly rediscovering long-lost items, and complicated customary negotiations between merchants. Pearling boats, we are told, would go out for months at a time, and divers would free-dive to astounding depths hundreds of times each day with little to no food.
By the time we anchor, in the middle of the tranquil, sparkling sea, it feels almost as if we have stepped back into another era entirely. Though our experience isn’t quite as hard-core, it is totally traditional. We’re each presented with a set of white diving robes and shown the age-old methods we would be trying: you cling to a weighted rope that is dropped into the water, pulling you down to the sea bed around three metres below. Equalising pressure turned out to be tricky. My nose is petite (something I am infinitely grateful to my mother for), which, let me tell you, is a nightmare when you’re trying to pinch your nose through a snorkel mask. At first I have a few coordination issues. Somehow, the weight would reach the bottom while I floundered midway down before popping up at the surface. Matt and Patrick have no such issues and their piles of oysters grow, while I have yet to find even one. It’s tiring work, and I swallow copious amounts of sea water in my increasingly frustrated attempts to reach the bottom. So I go rogue and swim out and attempt to dive down without the aid of a rope or weight. Major Ali spots my frantic efforts – you can’t miss them, to be honest. I quite literally can’t get past the surface and only succeed in creating a huge amount of splashing – and calls over.
“Look! Over here, I can see one, quick!” I have a sneaking suspicion that Major Ali took pity on me and chucked a few oysters back in for me to find, but I sheepishly collect them anyway and we head back to dry land where we gather on the shore to open up our finds.
Despite my hopefulness, I never expected to find more than a couple of miniscule pearls, so I was astounded when, as we opened up oyster after oyster, we found giant pearl after giant pearl – enough for one each. They are stunning, especially the incredible and rare pink pearl. We’re all transfixed by the raggedy, weed-covered shells and the beige, fleshy fish that revealed these beautiful shining orbs.
We admire our finds over tea, and I imagine what it must have been like to dive there a century ago, and ponder how much my pearl might be worth. If His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s website is anything to go by, I’m in the wrong industry.
Price on request. Sir Bani Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, www.desertislands.anantara.com (02 656 1399).
Four to try Bani Yas-based activities
Take a wildlife safari
See more than 15,000 species of animal up close and personal from African cheetahs, Tanzanian giraffes, Indian spotted deer, Arabian Oryx and more. Look out for the tiny Guinea pig-like Hyrax that’s astonishingly the closest living relative to the elephant.
Go on a wadi walk
Learn more about the fascinating geological make-up of Bani Yas Island while walking through beautiful multicoloured rock corridors and naturally-formed salt dome hilltops containing ancient minerals and fossils.
Be a history buff
Put your learning hat on and find out more about the fascinating history of the island, from the 7,000-year-old arrowheads discovered there to the ruins of the 7th century monastery and the bronze smelting site.
Kayak through the mangroves
Great for both beginners and the more experienced, the tranquil mangrove waters are a great place to spot exotic wildlife and explore one of the island’s unique eco-systems.