As the knife began to cut the shell into two, we collectively held our breaths. When the shell was separated, we were disappointed since we could not see anything except the animal that had died. “In 99.99 pc cases, the shells come up empty,’’ explains our guide, dousing our hopes with cold water. But then he goes on to prod the animal and cuts it into two. “Look right here, this is the heart of the oyster,” he points it out. As we looked on, with a mix of horror and disgust, suddenly using the knife he removed a tiny ball from the animal’s insides. But I looked on and soon enough he was holding in his hand a bright pearl. Simultaneously, all of us yelled in surprise and happiness at the relatively rare sight and definitely my first sighting of a fresh pearl.
I was visiting the famous Suwaidi Pearl Farm off the coast of Ras Al Khaimah that boasts of an extraordinary pearl fishing history that dates back over seven millennia. Historians believe that the emirate’s pearl industry was thriving in the 12th century and Ras Al Khaimah had become one of the busiest trading ports in the region only because of its pearl industry.
Though the pearl industry has evolved dramatically over the years, especially in the modern age and pearl farming has replaced pearl diving. In this context, Suwaidi Pearl Farm is a pioneer of sorts.
Located in Al Rams, a tiny fishing village, that is also the northernmost neighbourhood of Ras Al Khaimah and is at the foothills of the Jebel Jais mountains, Suwaidi Pearl Farm was set up in 2005 by Abdulla Al Suwaidi in honour of his late grandfather, Mohammed.
Our guide, Bilal, tells us that as a child, Abdulla had watched in awe as his grandfather would disappear under the water for minutes at a time and return clutching spherical, translucent treasures that royal families would wear. “Abdulla was convinced that Mohammed was half man and half fish,’’ he says, only half-jokingly.
In those days, entire communities of men would dive for exotic pearls, using boats that would go out to the sites where pearls were supposed to be. Our guide explains to us about the different kinds of boats that were used by pearl divers. The four main ones were Shouai, Sanbook, Jalboot and Baggara, each with its own distinct size and style of construction. “Jalboot is the largest boat and one of the most famous boats in the Arabian Gulf. It was primarily used for pearl diving. It is one of the largest boats carrying 30 sailors and more and is about 25 m long. And you have seen the boat,” Bilal tell us. He then turns around and points at the boat that was anchored next to the platform where we were. He then invites us for a tour of the Jalboot.
Bilal goes on to explain about the methods and techniques used by the fishermen of yesteryears. “They used turtle shell nose clips whilst diving to ensure that water did not enter their nose while underwater. The divers also plugged their ears with wax and consumed sweet dates and coffee before each dive. The activity was done individually, but the men of entire community together. “Every man had a specific responsibility that ensured boat safety and smooth running of the community. Outsiders were strictly forbidden unless they had the approval of one of the local rulers,’’ says Bilal.
However, there have been big changes in the way pearls are now hunted. Instead of going out on the high seas, the pearl divers have now turned pearl farmers like Abdulla Al Suwaidi and instead of diving for natural pearls like earlier, today’s pearl industry is all about farming the pearls in the neighbouring seas.
As part of his effort to not only preserve the heritage of Ras Al Khaimah and honouring the memory of his grandfather, Abdulla Al Suwaidi also set up the Suwaidi Pearls and opened its doors to the public to share the unique cultural heritage of the pearling industry, explaining the historical evolution and inviting guests to see the underwater treasures of the natural lagoon.
Today, I was amongst the lucky few to be sharing the experience of hunting for pearls. In the middle of the tour I was told to pick an oyster and try my luck. And it did turn out to be my lucky day as the oyster I had picked up produced a lovely pearl.
Hunting for pearls amidst the mangroves
There are short cruises, aboard a traditional pearl fishing boat, available for those interested in discovering the workings of the pearl industry in Ras Al Khaimah. The tour, befittingly, begins from the original fishing village, Al Rams and the tour guide explains the importance of the shallow bay and its protective mangroves.
Alongside tales of the famous pearl divers and their trademark diving techniques, the guide also explains the various tools used by a trader and kept in a traditional box, called bish-takh-tah. Moving from the past to the present, and from the boat to the Suwaidi Pearl farmhouse, located on the floating pontoon, the guide also explains the new scientific techniques that are used in today’s pearl farming.
The icing on the cake of our tour was kept for the end, when the guide took out a rare rosary that had numerous priceless pearls. Bilal says that there were only two other such rosaries in existence and both were with two different Sheikhs.
As we embarked on our boat to head back to the coast, the sea was glittering in the sharp summer sun. But to me, the only glitter in the world was the one in the pearl that I had hunted.