UAE | Heritage and Culture

Tour provides insight into pearl diving

EMEG and Jumeirah Group join hands to promote rich traditions of the country

  • By Derek Baldwin, Chief Reporter
  • Published: 00:00 April 11, 2012
  • Gulf News

Tourists receive a pearl diving demonstration from trained professionals
  • Image Credit: Francois Nel/Gulf News
  • Tourists receive a pearl diving demonstration from trained professionals. They also get a chance to experience the pearl diving traditions of the country that were once the financial lifeblood for Emiratis in the 1800s when pearls were used to trade for goods around the world.
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Dubai: The centuries-old Emirati hunt for the black pearl continues. To reconnect Emiratis and tourists with the once vibrant pearl-diving economy in the Gulf, Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) and Jumeirah Group have jointly formed a new pearl diving eco tour in waters off Palm Jebel Ali.

The inaugural public tour aboard a traditional dhow will be launched officially tomorrow giving up to 20 paid guests a chance to travel back in time and dive to the shallow ocean floor in search of their very own pearls.

The proud tradition of pearl diving in the UAE may be gone but it's certainly not forgotten, said Major Ali Saqar Sultan Suwaidi, president of EMEG.

Suwaidi invited Gulf News on a pre-launch dhow tour and pearling dive yesterday to a secluded protected cove where the media learned the merits of fetching oysters from the sea bottom and once safe back on board, shucking the shelled creatures in search of naturally-grown pearls.

None of the oyster hunters got rich but the dhow outing was about the journey, not the destination.

"This is an experience that nobody does now," Suwaidi told reporters from the marred seemingly ancient wooden decks of the 60-foot sailing dhow anchored in a slight chop yesterday morning.

"The whole country used to do pearl diving. Unfortunately, very few people now do it. It's very important for us to remember how it was before."

Suwaidi pointed out that pearling was once the financial lifeblood for Emiratis in the 1800s when pearls were used to trade for goods around the world.

The local pearl industry collapsed when Far East pearl farmers created the cultured pearl by manually inserting a foreign bead in each oyster to produce fine pearls faster than Arabian pearl divers could find them.Almost overnight, the once elusive and very expensive pearl became affordable for everyone and the Gulf-based pearling economy crashed.

Back in the day before cultured pearls cornered the market, scores of Emirati pearl divers would spend weeks aboard a dhow at sea and up to 300 divers per day would explore the depths of the sea in search of the elusive pink pearl, the most expensive of a range of colours, including the infamous black pearl, he said.

"From 100 oysters that were found, you might find one pearl," said Suwaidi, whose family history includes a long line of pearl divers.

Desmond Cawley, director for Sports and Leisure at Jumeirah Group — owners of Jumeirah Beach Hotel — said the new daily pearl diving tour will attempt to recreate the authentic diving experience through the offering of traditional diving clothes, fish and rice dishes cooked aboard for lunch and through the sharing of pearl stories from yesteryears.

Any pearls collected by guests will be kept as souvenirs, he said.

"For hundreds of years, this was the sole source of income," Cawley said, "but it has died away. We're looking to revive this rich heritage with a traditional experience." The educational eco tour will complement existing natural history experiences already available in Dubai, he said.

"There are lots of land adventures now such as desert safaris but this is very different," Cawley said.

Pearling history
  • The Arabian Gulf was one of the largest natural diving economies in the world.
  • By the 20th century, there were more than 1,000 pearling boats along the Trucial Coast employing an estimated 20,000 pearl divers.
  •  Pearl diving was still in play in the UAE until the 1950s but faded away as less expensive pearls became commonplace.
  • The world's largest pearl, 24 cm in diameter and 6.4 kg in weight, is worth $93 million (Dh341.53 million) and was liberated from a giant clam.

— Source: EMEG and Jumeirah Group

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