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Months at sea and hours on end in the water: the life of the pearl diver was tough, but it took an entire crew to harvest the pearl bounty lying on the sea floor. 
The pearling industry, which created a period of wealth for the United Arab Emirates from the late 19th century through the second decade of the 20th century, relied on extensive expertise, from shipbuilding to sailing. But the most complex process of all was the pearl diving voyage, which lasted four months in the midst of summer.


The shallow Arabian Gulf waters provided an ideal environment for pearling because oyster beds were shallow enough for divers to reach without modern scuba equipment. 


While the diver himself was the centre of activity, an entire team supported this effort – including crew that managed the ship, fed and entertained sailors and support the diver.


The main pearling season, called Ghous Al Kabir (The Big Dive), occurred between June 1 and September 30. The weather, though hot, was generally clear and calm, ideal for diving. Smaller one-month seasons occurred in October and November.


On the first day, crews would be seen off in a ceremony called Hiraat (Oyster Bed), that took place on the beach. The crews would stand next to their vessels, while their families and others not going to sea would stand at the edge of the beach and bid them farewell.


The most senior Sardal – the captain of the entire fleet – would then officially announce the start of the season. 


On the last day of the season, a cannon would be fired from shore, with preparations for the return of the sailors, houses were festooned with cloth flags, called Al Bayraq or Al Bandira, and special food as prepared, including sweets, juices and nuts. As the pearling vessels beached on the sand, the crews would receive songs of welcome, and reply with their own songs.

The Crew

Depending on ship size, vessel crews could be as many as 30 people, mostly men, but also occasionally boys and young girls. Among the most important members of the crew:
  • Nukhadh: He ran the entire pearling operation and generally was either the owner of the boat or managed the process on behalf of the owner. Significantly, he distributed profits of each season to members of the crew.
  • Sardal: The captain of each ship, he was an expert navigator and knew the best Hiraat (oyster bed) locations.
  • Diver: He performed the most difficult work, spending all day diving for oysters.
  • Seib: He was in charge of the ropes used to lower divers to the oyster beds and to pull them up when ready to surface.
  • Tabbab: Boys, 10-14 years old and often sons of men on the crew, would help the seib, and some might train divers. 
  • Ridha: Young boys, they served divers food and tea, and helped to open oyster shells.
  • Naham: He provided entertainment during the long months at sea through songs and poetry.

 

Tools

A variety of specialized tools were used aboard ship. Among them were:

  • Al Dean: this woven bag was worn around the neck and was used by the diver to hold the oysters he collected. 
  • Al Zubail: this rope was tied to the stone that attached to the diver’s leg, allowing him to quickly sink to the sea bed and remain there while collecting oysters. 
  • Al Yada: this rope was held by the seib. When the diver was ready to come up, he would tug hard on the rope, signaling that the seib should pull him up.
  • Al Fettam or Al Weaning: This clip made of turtle shell or sheep’s bone held the diver’s nose closed while under water. 

Did You Know ?

Divers would carry a knife with them to protect against predatory fish.

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