I grasp a submerged rope with one hand and, with the other, rummage in the bucket tied to its side. My fingers close over something small and flat, and I lift out a shiny oyster shell.
Almost immediately, it floats out of my hand and I watch it gleam all the way down to rest on the sandy bed below my feet.
I know I should plunge down after it, but my chest feels like it is ready to explode. A feeling of panic has started to spread in my brain, telling me to get out of there and to do so quickly. Kicking hard, I shoot to the surface, gasping for air as my head pops out of the water.
“You got it?” asks Sylas Kizito, the lifeguard perched on the side of the Hairat Yas Pearl Diving experience pool at the self-described world's first Emirati-themed water park.
“I dropped it and didn’t have enough air to go after it,” I explain.
“That’s all in your head,” he tells me. “You have enough air to stay down there much longer.”
It’s hard to believe this, given the trepidation I felt but a few moments ago. My face undoubtedly conveys this thought, but Jane Lou Garcia, my friendly activity instructor, isn’t put off as she pops up to the surface beside me and gets ready to put me through my pearl-diving paces once more.
An ode to the UAE's pearl-diving history
The Hairat Yas Pearl Diving experience at Yas Waterworld is an ode to the country's rich pearl-diving history.
For centuries pearling was the main source of wealth for families in the Gulf region. Men would head out to the ocean, sometimes for months on end, to harvest oyster shells from the depths of the ocean.
Without scuba apparatus or diving gear, these men relied on their lungs, their skill and their will to take them beneath the waves in search of hidden treasures.
In the 19th century, pearl diving accounted for almost 95 per cent of the region’s income, and at its height early in the 20th century, about 80,000 men worked on the pearling vessels – 22,000 in the Trucial States alone. Today, owing to the influx of artificial pearls and the discovery of oil, the industry has come to a near halt, but the practice is still considered one of the UAE's most treasured traditions.
At Yas Waterworld in the capital, visitors can get a taste of what pearling involves, inside a purpose-built glass tank. Open to anyone who is aged 8 and older, the experience involves expert instruction, equipment hire and the chance to dive into the water in search of pearls. And if you find treasure, it's yours to keep.
As a scuba diver, I love being in the water, so I jumped at the chance to try out the experience. But it’s funny how deep five metres suddenly seems when you have no regulator in your mouth nor a tank of air on your back.
“The pressure is also more,” explains Kizito. This is down to the relatively small size of the tank compared to the ocean, which means that even at shallow depths, the pressure is high and divers must equalise more frequently.
Reaching new depths
After being given a scuba mask, the experience gets under way, with my instructor diving down to place a few shells inside three buckets attached to a rope that runs from the bottom to the top of the tank. The idea is to get participants accustomed to freediving by having them submerge slowly using the rope as a guide, and retrieve a shell from the buckets, each of which is positioned at a different depth.
My instructor shows me how to equalise, something I’ll need to do as I go down to prevent pressure building up in my ears. Again, it’s something I’m used to from scuba diving, but it takes on a whole new meaning when you need to use some of the precious air you have stored in your lungs to blow out through your ears to equalise.
I reach the first bucket with ease, and move on to the second. But the third one, about one metre from the bottom of the tank, proves more difficult. After dropping the shell the first time, I take a deep breath and dive down again. This time I make it to the third bucket and grab the shell, then swim rapidly to the top of the pool even as my mind tells me I’m running out of air.
The lifeguard tells me it’s all about one's mental state. “You physically can do it, but your mind is telling you that you can’t. Don’t listen to it,” says Kizito, before casually mentioning that he can stay submerged at the bottom of the tank for nearly three minutes without feeling the need to breathe.
I try again, this time getting a toe to the bottom of the tank, which qualifies me for the final challenge. My instructor dives down and hides a few shells inside various objects on the tank floor.
Taking some deep diaphragm-led breaths, I plunge into the blue, opting to go head first this time to get a bit more speed on the way down. It’s trickier to equalise using this technique, but I manage to restore calm in my ears and find I’ve got a bit more time at the bottom of the tank.
Searching on the floor, I pick up a black tube, but it's empty, so I move towards a treasure chest where I find one of the hidden oysters. An old blue and white bowl reveals no treasures, but I’m thrilled when I pick up a small dolphin toy and find a shell stuck on its undersurface.
Oyster shells firmly in hand, I kick off the bottom of the tank and shoot to the top, all my worries about how much air I have left in my lungs pushed aside as adrenalin takes over. A told-you-so look from the lifeguard accompanied by a smile lets me know I’ve finally cracked the technique, and I’m in tune with my body.
I head downstairs to the Tawasha Pearl Shop where staff crack open my chosen shell with a small hammer. Very carefully, the shell is prised apart and, to my delight, inside is the glint of a tiny pearl. Staff rinse it carefully for me, before handing it over as a souvenir and a reminder of my pearl-diving fun at Yas Waterworld.
The Hairat Yas Pearl Diving experience at Yas Waterworld, Abu Dhabi, is open to park visitors aged 8 and older, and costs from Dh85; yaswaterworld.com