Mike MacEacheran | Pearl diving in Bahrain, Cathay Pacific Discovery
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Pearl diving in Bahrain, Cathay Pacific Discovery

Every week, Ahmed Alkhalfan drives his Al Rasha speedboat out across the sunburnt Persian Gulf in the hope he may yet make his first million. Beneath the lapping aquamarine waves, and under a relentless sun, Bahrain’s rich heritage is resting, hidden from sight. An avid scuba diver, Ahmed is treasure hunting for the finest natural pearls in the world – and it is a passion that has been in his blood for years.

“My father used to go pearl diving on traditional dhow boats with my grandfather but I was too young to ever go with them,” the Bahraini national recalls. “It used to be really dangerous, but now we do it with proper scuba diving equipment it’s very different. It’s not a job anymore for our generation but we are trying to relive the history of pearl diving.”

While historically pearl divers would athletically pirouette into the Gulf up to depths of 15 metres – with only a simple wooden peg attached to their nose and a wicker basket under their arm – today’s pearl diving experiences are a more relaxed, yet still exhilarating affair. Equipped with special knives and scuba tanks, it is part Lara Croft fantasy, part Jacques Cousteau underwater adventure. “In Bahrain, there really is no limit with pearl diving,” says Ahmed. “I normally come home with a full basket, which is around 250 oysters. As for finding a large pearl, well, it depends on luck more than anything else.”

Before the discovery of oil underneath the sandy bottoms of the Persian Gulf, the tiny island state of Bahrain was rich with a different jewel of the deep. In 1521, the Portuguese took control and established Bahrain as a pearling post and until the early 1900s the capital Manama became famous for its natural white pearls and their uses. Colonists traded them under British rule to Europe and sailors ferried them across to India and into the Far Orient. Whilst pearls were once the coveted possession of noted European royals, including Queen Victoria and the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, and paintings like The Girl with a Pearl Earring inspired millions, in the Orient ground pearls were used by highly sought after Chinese physicians to cure all manner of ills. Indeed, the Qur’an often mentions that God will reward the faithful with necklaces adorned with pearls.

Created from extensive oyster beds bathed in both fresh water springs and the warm, shallow waters off Manama (the name Bahrain itself is derived from two Arabic words meaning ‘two seas’), the region’s natural pearls once fetched the highest prices at market. Offshore, the oyster beds of Hayr Bu am’amah and Hayr al-Mayyana present the densest aggregation of natural oyster beds in the world, covering an overall area of 19,350 hectares with an estimated oyster density of 43.600 oysters per hectare. It is even rumoured that at the height of the pearl industry, 2500 dhows could be seen bobbing on the horizon during every summer harvest. “It used to be one of the richest trading businesses between Bahrain and other countries,” adds Ahmed, with a tinge of sadness, “but by discovering oil everything changed.”

Although this rich 5000 year old cultural golden era was sidelined by post World War 2 prospectors, the pearls unique lustre is not yet lost. At a grass roots level, a new generation of pearl divers and scuba companies like Scubamaster – driven by adrenalin rather than avarice – are charting pearl diving sites for tourists and the modern Bahrain Pearl Laboratory is digitally resetting its customer weighing scales. “Bahrain is still the only place in the world where the planting of oysters is not allowed,” concludes Ahmed. “All the pearls in our seas are natural – so it is still regarded as the finest pearl anywhere.” Thankfully, marine biologists have shown that harvesting the shells is also advantageous to the over-saturated oyster beds.

Embracing this renaissance, HH King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture and Information are spearheading a campaign to have the country’s pearl diving heritage officially recognised by UNESCO and are investing BD15 million across a series of restorations to former pearl diving yards and merchants homes. Led by minister of culture and information, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, the UNESCO nomination also includes having a three-kilometre historical trail for visitors that will follow a serpentine path from shore to street and from the Suq Al Qaysariya to homes belonging to divers, captains, pearl traders and jewellers. Beit Al Siyadi, built in 1905 by the pearl trader Ahmed bin Qassim Seyadi, is currently the best example and is inlaid with carved wooden doors and crowned with ubiquitous Arabic wind towers. In total, sixteen other houses on the northern island of Muharraq will be refurbished in a similar architectural style showcasing Bahrain’s nautical heritage of angling and anchors. For now, at least, the country’s iconic statutes, embellished with pearl motifs, no longer seem so lonely.

“Pearls were the main driver of the shipping industry and behind the establishment of trading houses in Bahrain and the Gulf Region,” says Sheikha Mai. “The pearl industry was the main source of economic life of the people of Bahrain at that time.” The minister of culture and information is now focused on creating a journey through the country’s heritage sites to ensure its memory survives. So far, everything is on schedule for 2011.

Additionally, following the success of last year’s second annual Pearl Diving Day, Muharraq Governorate is keen to prise this lucrative oyster shell further open and will again host another festival this coming summer. If HH King Hamad and Sheikha Mai get their wish, affluent tourists will set sail for the pearling banks once again to seek out fortunes of their own and Bahrain’s shiny lustre will burnish once more. Off the coast of Muharraq, as he peers out from his boat across the Gulf, Ahmed Alkhalfan certainly hopes so.