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‘Danger’ Matt

Once the most important industry in the UAE, pearl fishing is the subject of a new day-trip that hopes to teach people the intricacies of traditional pearl diving. Does it work? Our man Matt plunges into the country’s history

the easy route and went on the organised shuttle bus leaving from the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. BRIEFING Unexpectedly, I arrive at a completely modern beachside cabin at the base of the Palm, the kind that you would see on the shores of Lake Como (equipped with indoor fireplace – swanky). There, I am met by the president of EMEG, Ali Saqar Al Suweidi, or Major Ali as he prefers. Major Ali is a third-generation pearldiver whose family, like many hese days, outdoor pursuits pearls you find), most importantly, Instead, I would be taking part others, had to abandon their all seem to be about financial reward. Sign me up. way of life in the 1940s when the in a new day-trip set up by the grandeur. Everything is international pearl market became Emirates Marine Environmental the region’s quickest, or GETTING STARTED saturated by Japanese divers who Group (EMEG) allowing locals, tallest, or longest. That’s why it was First off, it was important to clear residents and visitors a chance had developed pearl-farming refreshing to see that this month’s up that I (thankfully) would not techniques. “It was a difficult time to experience this proud Emirati task has much more of a cultural be reliving the gruelling ways for many families back then, but tradition. twist: learning the traditional of divers of old – sharing an old Although you can arrange to get now it is great to see people who methods of pearl diving used by dhow with 40 people for three are interested in learning about there by yourself, trying to get all the Bedouin people. On paper, months, surviving on a fish-only the way to the base of the Jebel Ali our culture and seeing how we it has everything: bags of skill, diet and only three coconut used to live,” he says. Palm via various security checks oodles of tradition and (after scoops of water per day doesn’t After a short briefing, Ali and unsigned roads could prove to hearing that you get to keep any rank too highly on my to-do list. be another mission in itself. I took shows me his impressive personal


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Major Ali

“With no idea where to start, I scramble around desperately looking for oysters” collection of pearls – worth a fair bob or two – and I change into a customary white robe, which was used as rudimentary protection by all divers in order to protect them from jellyfish, and board the traditional dhow. DIVING FOR TREASURE Once we drop anchor, Ali jumps into the waters, explaining how divers would search for the perfect spot for diving, and then demonstrates the techniques used. He goes under and, like an old pro, resurfaces a couple of minutes later, grinning, with a couple of oysters in his hands. Easy. I’m up. I jump in and follow what I’ve been taught, wrapping my foot around a weighted rope, breathing deeply and once ready, I let go of one end of the rope and hold on as the weight hauls me down to the bottom of sea. Luckily, we’re only diving at five metres. I reach the floor in seconds, and it takes a few more to acclimatise to the surroundings.

With no real idea where to start looking, I scramble around kicking and turning, desperately seeking the oysters. Ali had assured me that there were “so many of them down there”. I resurface empty handed. Determined, I try again. The key is learning not to waste any precious air when underwater. So this time, as I already know what to expect, my movements are calculated and less frantic. Just when I thought hope was gone and I’m running out of air, I see one. And another. And another. And another. I burst up to the surface hauling an impressive six oysters in my hands, to the cheers of the people aboard the boat. Now, it’s time to open the shells and discover the priceless pearls inside. I’ve already spent the proceeds from my first haul (one private island, please). Alas, nothing. Not a single crumbsized bead. It turns out that this pearl-diving malarkey is harder than you think. However, all my disappointment is forgotten on the way back to shore as we sit down to enjoy a lunch of fish and rice, hearing Ali’s stories of the family industry in times gone by, which prove to be the real pearls of the afternoon.

1/2 AD

VERDICT I’m not sure what I enjoyed more, the stories about the arduous life of the pearl divers or the thrill of the diving, which for me means that it was an excellent day out. Pavilion Dive Centre, Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Dubai, Tue to Sat, 9am to 3pm, Dhs700. Tel: (04) 4068828.

The booty

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Pearl diving  

What's On – April 2012

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