Whether it's the promise of huge rewards or the chance to own something prized, the desire to find buried treasure seems to span all ages and cultures. Yet, like many modern-day UAE residents, I'd assumed that the days of finding pearls at the bottom of the Arabian Gulf were long gone; the opportunity to join a traditional pearl dive with the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) came as a surprise. EMEG, which is working with the Jumeirah hotel group to offer guests the chance to become treasure hunters for the day, will offer trips to the public from March 17.
I join a group of 12 would-be pearl divers in a large chalet by a deserted beach between Jebel Ali and Ghantoot. We're greeted by Ali Saqar Sultan Al Suweidi, better known locally as Major Ali, president and founder of EMEG, and his team. They invite us to sit on embroidered floor cushions while they give us some background history to the pearl diving industry and more practical advice. We are offered traditional snacks - small oval doughnuts soaked in syrup, sideplate-size pancakes with honey, and, spiced tea or Arabic coffee - as we settle down to listen.
For thousands of years in the Gulf region, diving for pearls was the mainstay of life. Success could mean great wealth; failure hardship and poverty, while for most it was simply the means to earn the most basic living and support a family. Everyone was involved, Major Ali tells us: "It was life."
It could also be brutal: "If you wanted to go on the three-month diving trip, you went to the nokhada [captain] and he lent you money to buy food to give to your family. After three months you would come back and give the nokhada pearls. If you didn't bring any he would take your house, or put your children to work. Not everyone brought pearls back."
Major Ali explains that an ordinary crew would have been made up of divers and helpers. Their day began early in the morning with the call to prayer, followed by a meal of a few dates and a single half coconut shell of water. "You could not drink when you wanted to," he says. "A guy with a big stick would hit you if you tried to take water." He also points out the symbiotic relationship between each diver and his helper: "The diver would collect shells fast, stay down for as long as possible, only tugging on the rope for the helper to pull him up when his air had run out. If the helper was not good, the diver would die."
Diving would stop at sunset with prayer and then a light meal of grilled fish and rice. There was a hierarchy for eating, Major Ali tells us. "The nokhada would say, 'You, you brought 100 shells, you are good, come and eat. You, you didn't bring many shells, you eat at the end'." This served to motivate everyone for the following day's dive.
Pearl fever reached its height between 1900 and 1930 when their price escalated to incredible heights. In 1909 Pierre Cartier reportedly bought his jewellery shop on Fifth Avenue in New York for a double string of pearls then valued at US$1 million (Dh3.67m). Eventually the fever burnt out; the advent of the Great Depression had a huge impact on sales and as the Japanese perfected the art of cheaper cultured pearls, the demand for those from the Gulf fell. Traditional pearling as a commercial venture was all but over by the 1950s.
Yet, as long as oyster beds are not over-harvested they continue to replenish themselves, and Major Ali passes round a square of soft brown silk containing pearls of all sizes and colours that he and his team have found locally. One is off-white, perfectly round and unblemished, the size of a large chickpea. The light from the pearl has an iridescent depth to it and when one of the would-be divers produces a string of plastic pearls as a joke and holds it next to the natural ones, the depth becomes even more insistent. Major Ali looks disparagingly at the cheap replicas.
Next he passes around small bowls of dried local plant extracts, explaining the herbal medicine tradition associated with pearling. There are about 10 medicines that cover all likely ailments. Laban, a natural gum obtained from the sap of trees, is chewed to keep the teeth and gums healthy. Sabar, a herb grown in the mountains, is taken to maintain blood pressure. The most important one, however, is ghat, a plant from the desert in Hatta. It is dried, then soaked in water for 24 hours, when it becomes a paste and is then smothered all over the hands and body to harden the skin. Without this, the skin would become cracked and bloody from exposure to the sun and salt, making handling ropes or diving painful and, eventually, impossible.
Major Ali says we'll have the opportunity to join the crew but that no one has to dive if they don't want to - although by this stage everyone is eager to get going. We retire to wrestle with our old-fashioned pearl diving outfits, which comprises a voluminous white cotton shirt with a hood and huge matching drawstring trousers, worn to guard against jellyfish stings. Once dressed, we walk down the wooden pier, carrying fresh water urns on our shoulders, and board the familiar-looking wooden dhow with its huge white sail.
Our crew are wearing crimson pink or bright blue checked sarongs with bleached white shirts and crocheted white skull caps; it's a strong contrast with the intense blues of the sea and sky. The decks are also covered in thin turquoise cushions. Overhead, rectangular tarpaulins have been strung together to protect us from the sun. We sit, praying there will be enough wind on what seems like a completely still day. There's a sudden gust and the dhow's crew break into song as they haul the sail's ropes; we're off to the oyster beds, full of anticipation, just like centuries of pearl divers before us.
The oyster beds are a few kilometres offshore, and once there Major Ali produces a large teardrop-shaped rock tied by two pieces of string on either side, and weighing about five kilos, along with a basket in which to put the shells. The rock is dropped over the side of the boat by a helper who holds onto the strings and Major Ali jumps in and demonstrates how to slip your foot into the space between the strings while holding both ends in one hand. He fixes a clip to his nose to stop the rush of water, puts on a pair of goggles - both rather more modern inventions - releases the string and allows the weight of the rock to take him down to the bottom of the sea. He is immediately successful and adds a respectable number of shells to the basket.
Now it's my turn. The sea is the soothing temperature of a bath but I find that the actual diving isn't as easy as Major Ali made it look. The depth is about 5m and my foot slips out of the weight on the way down so I have to swim hard to get to the bottom, with cotton flapping around holding me back and my ears aching from the pressure. Visibility underwater is poor because recent rough weather has churned up the sand. I soon realise why I should have been wearing gloves: oysters cover the bottom but so do sharp rocks and sea urchins, and in my frenzy to pick up whatever is there before my breath gives out it's difficult to be discerning. I stay down for as long as possible, which isn't very long, and then, just when I start to feel panic, I swim for the surface and experience an explosion of relief as I inhale fresh air.
By this time everyone is in the water and beginning to get the hang of pearling. We each dive at our own pace, collecting four or five shells at a time, then one by one clamber back onto the dhow, exhausted. Eventually, Major Ali shouts that the basket is full and the last of us swim towards the boat. We congregate on deck for an oyster opening demonstration and start the exciting, meticulous work of looking for pearls. Natural pearls are usually found under the outer fleshy rim of the oyster and can be tiny. As the curved knife slides gently around the edge, I feel a strong desire to find one. I look at the other divers' faces and realise that it is the same for everyone.
Major Ali calls us to wash, breaking the silence before lunch takes over. In the middle of the boat there is a small area for a fire where the freshly caught fish is barbecuing and the rice has already boiled. Our meal is served on large platters with clove-flavoured rice along with side dishes of dates. The oily fish tastes delicious in the way food always does outdoors after such exertion. We help ourselves to water from the urns and relax chatting with one another before returning to open our oysters again.
It is just as we are contemplating sailing homeward, and I remember Major Ali's warning not everyone brought back pearls, that one of the group shouts that she has found a tiny yellow-white pearl the size of a grape pip. Everyone crowds around delightedly to look. We have found an ancient sort of treasure, as Major Ali points out, "better than any money".
The Pavilion Dive Centre at Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Dubai, organises pearl diving excursions for Dh700 per adult and Dh500 per child (below 12). Call 04 406 8828 to book.