Rediscovering Bahrain: In search for the eternal pearl

Pearl Fishery Boat in the Persian Gulf

Pearl Fishery Boat in the Persian Gulf

You missed another one – right here, look!” pointed Mohammed Slais, our Bahraini pearl diver, as he gesticulated to the tiny yet luminous natural pearl that he had just discovered in my oyster. I wasn’t very good at this, despite having spent over an hour looking for pearls and performing what felt like numerous intricate surgical operations to any number of molluscs. “Natural pearls are much smaller than cultured (farmed) pearls, and less than 10 per cent of your oyster catch will have one,” he cautioned as he pointed to the two bucketfuls of shells that he had just dived for.

Mohammed estimates that he is one of fewer than 1,500 young Bahrainis who still actively dive for pearls in the rich oyster beds of the Bahraini coast, doing it as a hobby rather than as a full-time job. He uses only traditional methods, and much like generations of Bahrainis before him, he dives to depths of six metres without an oxygen tank, wetsuit or goggles, using only a tortoiseshell nose clip. In the past, divers would go down as far as 25m by tying stones to their feet.

“The best oyster beds in the world are around Bahrain, so everyone would come to our waters for centuries,” he explained. This is down to a unique topographical quirk that creates ideal conditions for these coveted molluscs. “Bahrain means ‘two seas’ in Arabic; this refers to the two kinds of water around the island. Freshwater springs are found in multiple locations beneath the saltwater ocean – there are spots where you can even dive under the layer of salt and get to where the fresh water
lies underneath.”

While pearling has indeed been central to the history of Bahrain since ancient times, Mohammed is more focused on its recent history, since the birth of the modern Bahraini kingdom in the 18th century. He credits the Al Khalifa royal family for introducing rules that made the profession a viable choice, and it thrived here on the island for three centuries.

“It was extremely hard and perilous to be a pearl diver. You could be in the sea for more than four months, starting from the end of May,” Mohammed tells me, noting that many a poor soul was lost during this period. “Even today, most Bahrainis will have some connection to either boat-building, diving, trading or somehow helping in this operation.”

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