Divers relive treasure hunt

Residents can now experience pearl diving as it was once practised by Emiratis.

Members of the public can now take part in a traditional pearl diving trip on a dhow, using authentic techniques.
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DUBAI //A pearl diver wearing the traditional, light-coloured costume used by generations of Emirati treasure hunters reaches out for an oyster shell on the seabed off Jebel Ali.

Only his modern diving mask shows that the scene did not take place many decades ago, before the pearl industry collapsed in the 1930s.

It actually happened yesterday, thanks to a new initiative by the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (Emeg) and Jumeirah.

From tomorrow, members of the public can take part in a traditional pearl diving trip on a dhow, using authentic clothing and techniques.

Pearls were gathered in the Gulf for centuries and the industry was the only source of income for the seven emirates. But the development of much cheaper cultured pearls in Japan killed off the trade.

The new venture intends to draw attention to this important part of the UAE's heritage.

"This is a great thing. If you don't think about your traditions, you will lose all your future," said Major Ali Saqar Al Suweidi, the president of Emeg and the son and grandson of pearl divers. He said the Gulf's oyster beds had deteriorated greatly since the end of pearl diving.

"The old people believe that the oyster is like a plant," he said. "If you cut the plant it comes again, but if you leave it then it will be destroyed. This is what has happened - I've dived at many places and there are not as many oysters as before.

"I teach children to pearl dive. One said, 'I can't go pearl diving because a shark will eat me', and his grandfather was a pearl diver. I taught him, and in the end he loved pearl diving. This is in their blood."

At the industry's peak there were 500 pearl diving boats in Dubai and the fleet spent three months at sea each summer without returning to port.

Jumeirah hopes the trip will attract hotel guests and other tourists, expatriates and Emiratis, many of whom have family links to the pearl industry.

Des Cawley, the director of sport and leisure at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, said: "What we're doing is looking to revive this experience for our guests so they can get a flavour of the history and heritage.

"There are many different oyster beds and we'll rotate them, they range from three to five metres deep. Historically, the pearl divers used to dive to depths of up to 40 metres."

The initiative has been welcomed by Juma'a bin Thalith, the director of the heritage department at the Emirates Diving Association.

He said: "This is a good initiative that will support Eda's efforts to document the pearl diving heritage and promote it."

The National had a preview of the pearl diving experience yesterday, joining a group that met at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

A bus took the novice pearl divers to a chalet on the beach next to the trunk of the Palm Jebel Ali, where they changed into the traditional costume, which gives protection from jellyfish stings.

They then boarded a dhow that took them to an oyster bed a few hundred metres offshore.

Major Ali demonstrated the diving technique, which involves placing a foot in a loop fixed to a weight and then releasing an attached rope, allowing the weight to drag the diver to the seabed.

The treasure seeker then swims off and grabs as many oyster shells as possible before running out of breath and returning to the surface.

For safety reasons, only two pearl divers are allowed in the water at a time and each is assisted by a helper on the boat.

Two scuba divers from the Pavilion Dive Centre are ready to help out if needed.

Afterwards the divers are shown how to open the shells with a special knife, known as a mafligah.

At first it seemed that none of the shells contained any treasure but closer examination of one revealed two tiny silvery pearls attached to the inside.

The pearl diving experience costs Dh700 for adults and Dh500 for under-12s, including breakfast and lunch. Details can be found at www.jumeirah.com/Pearl-Diving.

For more pictures, click here.