Emirati treasure hunters
Photo Antonie Robertson
By Colin Simpson - The National
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.