Pearl diving in Qatar

Did You Know?

Pearl diving in Qatar is one of the oldest professions in the Gulf region. It was one of the main sources of income in the pre-oil era. There were two diving seasons: the big dive, a two-month journey, and the small dive, a forty-day journey. Both seasons fell between June and September. Qatar's oysters harness the region's famously salty water to create pearls with a characteristically luminescent sheen. Among the tools the divers used were the scuttle, Al-futam, Al-falakah and stones.

Pearls from the Gulf Region have been traded throughout the world since the Mesopotamian civilization in 2000 B.C. The Qatari peninsula was not settled until the 1700s, but the coast offered prime Gulf access for pearlers, and the industry took off quickly. In the early 20th century, Japan began an intense cultivation of cultured pearl beds, and the international pearl market flooded with merchandise. This global pearl price decrease coupled with the Great Depression and decreased buying power made pearling, already a dangerous and expensive endeavor, no longer a viable option for many Qataris.

 

Diving for pearls as a way to earn a living is not unlike gambling; one in 10,000 oysters contains a pearl. Pearl diving operations consisted of fleets of ships filled to the brim with divers working in shifts, and embarked on tours ranging from 40 days to six months. Divers used two ropes, a weighted tie around their foot and a harness-like tie around their waist, to rapidly descend and ascend for their dives. The only other equipment they carried was a nose clip, finger covers and an oyster bag; skilled divers prided themselves on their ability to hold their breath for two minutes or more.

 

Throughout the Gulf, traditional pearl diving techniques took a significant toll on divers. Pearl divers were under the constant strain of malnutrition and dehydration from limited access to food and fresh water, and illnesses ran rampant in closed shipboard barracks. Quick deep dives at depths of up to 200 feet put divers at risk for pressure-related headaches and illnesses, and in extreme cases divers could get tangled in their weighted rope and drown. The Qatari seas also carry more life-threatening and immediate dangers -- marine predators. Barracudas, sea snakes and sharks, from hammerheads to tiger sharks to great whites, were known to attack divers scrambling to grab as many oysters as possible during their brief dives.

 

Modern technological advances and wealth from Qatar's oil supply have radically changed both the lifestyle and standard of living of many Qataris, shifting the focus from the difficult pearl-diving profession. Cultural festivals focusing on traditional sea culture keep modern Qataris in touch with their ancestral way of life. The annual Qatar Marine Festival honors pearl diving with a three-day, 13-ship pearling competition and a shorter educational voyage near shore. The festival focuses not only on pearling but also the associated culture, celebrating the departure and return of songs, prayers and performances associated with the craft.

(Nada Hamouche)