I'm a pearl diver – this is what it involves01/25/2021
Watching my grandfather walk into the sea and disappear is an image I will never forget.
As an eight-year-old child, I thought this mysterious man was half-human, half-fish.
He eventually popped back up but he was gone for a long time. It was maybe a few minutes but everything seems longer when you’re young.
When we returned home I told my grandmother that I thought my grandfather was an amphibian. I also noticed his right foot was webbed, which fuelled my imagination further.
My grandmother sat me down and gave me a more logical explanation.
She told me that my grandfather went in the sea diving for pearls and these precious gemstones landed on the crowns of kings and queens; they ‘unified nations’.
Pearl diving was an ancient tradition but my grandfather was the last one in the UAE still doing it. This was because it takes time and skill and people were becoming distracted by modern technologies and other industries.
Oh, and about the foot, apparently my grandfather stood on a stingray’s tail and the barb killed all the nerves in his toes and left them disfigured.
From that day, my dream of becoming a pearl diver began.
I started having recurring dreams. Each night I imagined that I was diving in the sea and a beautiful pearl would land in my hand.
My grandmother said pearls in dreams mean ‘knowledge’ and a hand means ‘exclusivity’; she said I would be gifted with something that would be exclusive to me. I guess now, I see that pearl diving is what she was talking about. It has become my life.
When the UAE became independent in 1971 people started to veer away from traditional crafts and everyone wanted to be a doctor or engineer. But I told my parents that I wanted to be a pearl diver. I had always been different as a child so they weren’t surprised by my unusual career choice.
At the age of 17, I learned how to use a nose clip so I could hold my breath underwater. To let me get to the sea bed and scoop up oysters I needed to be able to hold it for two minutes.
I was scared of the water at first after hearing about the stingrays and other animals. Once I broke that fear, diving became not only my profession, but an obsession.
I was mesmerised by pearls; no one can disagree with their beauty.
The only thing that’s tricky when it comes to pearl diving is that only one in 100 oysters contain a pearl. Sometimes I would be doing up to 200 dives a day.
There are some essential tools when it comes to pearl diving.
Along with a nose clip, you must have a stone weight to get you to the sea bed as quickly as possible.
Other accessories include a basket around your neck to collect your treasure and finger guards made from camel leather to prevent scratches from rocks and corals.
You will always have a dive boat with you.
Each crew member has a different task, from steering to pulling up the stone weight, to cooking for everyone.
The only thing divers and boat crew consume all day are dates and coffee and at night time they have rice and fish.
Dates are full of sugar for energy and coffee helps boost the mood.
But after a day of diving with no haul, it can prove frustrating!
After travelling the world, learning from other cultures, and doing a lot of in-depth research, I started cultivating pearls in Ras al Khaimah 15 years ago.
I now have a pearl farm and a floating visitors’ centre, which I refer to as ‘the castle of my childhood dreams’.
Cultivating a pearl involves surgically implanting a small shell bead inside the oyster.
The mollusc then secretes layers of nacre around this nucleus, and eventually a pearl forms. This process takes more than one year.
In the final stage of cultivation, the oysters have to be cleaned by hand every week for 12 months so that barnacles don’t attach to the shells and break them. There are thousands of oysters, so this process can take a while!
Thanks to this technique, we can produce around 40,000 pearls per year and my hope is to grow this further.
They come in all different colours and sizes. It depends on what the client wants and how much they want to spend.
We farm Pinctada radiata, commonly known as the Atlantic pearl-oyster or the Gulf pearl oyster. Nothing goes to waste, and I love to eat the oyster meat.
They are full of a protein and very delicious to me. It’s best if they are cooked or fried like tempura as the moisture explodes in your mouth.
I always carry a little bag of some of my favourite natural pearls on me. This pouch brings me luck and gives me energy and power. The haul is probably worth $100,000.
It’s much better than an expensive watch. I never wear a watch here anyway, as I don’t need one when I’m surrounded by nature.
I mostly use the call to prayer to tell the time, too.
In the future, I hope to have one of the most revered pearl stores in Dubai and to have a pearl diving school here to keep the tradition alive.
I’m not sure if my children will continue the legacy but they are free to forge their paths.
Looking ahead, I also see the importance of protecting our environment. Luckily, the sea here still produces such wonderful treasures and we are very blessed.
Thankfully the UAE government has worked with localities to enforce tough regulations so that there is no dumping or chemical waste.
When it comes to my most precious pearl, I still haven’t got it yet.
I’m always on a mission to find the best, the perfect and most exquisite, pearl, so this will be a lifelong journey!
As told to Sadie Whitelocks
To learn more about Abdulla’s pearl farming business visit suwaidipearls.ae
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