Pearl divers on a boat. Image Credit: Major Ali Al Suwaidi

Dubai: Ali was eight years old when he went on his maiden pearl diving trip in the centuries-old tradition of his forefathers.

Like most boys of his age in those days, Ali boarded the dhow with dreams in his eyes and excitement in his heart, beginning his tryst with the sea that became his life-long fascination.

That was way back in 1960s, when the pearling culture in the region had almost ebbed, but going against the tide, Ali got hooked on to it.

Ali Al Suwaidi is the founder of Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG).

A retired major of the UAE Navy, Ali is a passionate environmentalist, with a special attachment to marine life.

“My father and grandfather were both pearl divers and dhow captains and it was but natural for me to carry on with the tradition,” he said.

Source of livelihood

“My family is from Dubai and we all grew up by the sea. Like most families that I knew, particularly my father’s generation, lived off the sea. For us the sea was everything, it was the only source of livelihood or rather the life itself.”

A veteran diver, Ali has made passing on the pearl diving tradition to young Emiratis his life’s mission, having himself learnt the trade from his father and grandfather.

“I was 17 when I made my first dive. It was 1971, when the UAE as a nation was being born. I set sail along with a few experienced elders.

“I made several dives, but for three days we couldn’t find any oyster that had a pearl in it. I was frustrated and we came back to the shore. When I went back home the sailors called me, they had found big pearls in the oysters that were yet to be opened. One of it was very beautiful, called Jeevan, which means life in Hindi. Since then I have been diving regularly,” said Ali, recalling his tough initiation.

Going strong

Ali was 17 when he found his first pearl and at 55 he still dives and finds pearls regularly, but unlike his forefathers, who dived for livelihood, Ali dives as part of his pearling classes for youngsters, both Emiratis as well as expatriates.

“Pearl diving has been the main occupation of the people in the Arabian Gulf for thousands of years. We have been using the same method and same equipment for almost 4,000 years without any major change and the tradition has passed on generations after generations.

“My only mission is that our next generation is not only aware of this beautiful practice but they also learn the skills,” said Ali.

The classes, which are free, are held at Sir Bani Yas Island in summer, and anyone between the age of 10 and 25 can participate. “We train around 2,000 children and young men every year, with 50 people sailing with us at a time. The trainees are taken through the entire process with different roles divided between people according to their inclinations and skills,” said Ali.

He added: “The entire process of pearling is a science, right from identifying the place for diving, called Maghaz, to the act of diving itself as well as the process of finding the pearl form the shell. People are assigned different roles and every job needs patience and skills.”

Starting young

A typical sailor joins the sailing party as a young boy or Wulaid and with time spent and skills acquired he progresses on to different roles.

He could be a Saib, who helps pull the diver out, or a Ghawwas, who is a diver.

Other members on the dhow are Nakhudha, the captain, the Mujaddimeen, deputy captian as well as Nahan, who sings throughout the day to keep the sailors entertained. And importantly, there is a tabbakh, who cooks food that help keep the sailors’ energy levels high.

A normal pearling trip could last up to three months and a dhow could have several divers, diving up to 200 times per day, with each dive lasting up to 2-3 minutes.