Experience an ancient Gulf tradition on a pearl dive off the Dubai coast

Experience an ancient Gulf tradition on a pearl dive off the Dubai coast.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the world's finest pearls were found in the waters of the Arabian gulf. Long story short, the industry was the only that thrived in the region until oil was discovered--but the tradition is not forgotten. Starting in March, travelers to the United Arab Emirates can take part in a traditional pearl diving experience with Dubai's Jumeirah Group. Participants will dress in traditional clothes and board a dhow, a traditional sailing vessel with a long hull design and a mast with a lateen sail. Once out in the water, guests will dive for oysters. Apparently, if guests snag an actual pearl they will be able to keep them as a souvenir of the trip. Part of the excursion will also include a typical meal of Emirati fish and rice. Watch the video above to get a feel for the entire process.

The excursion is open to anyone interested in learning more about the ancient pearling traditions (in other words, not just Jumeirah hotel guests) and will cost about 700 UAE dirhams, which is about $190. Reservations can be made through Jumeirah's Pavillion Dive Center.

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."

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