Saturday, 7 May 2016

Pearl diving at Sir Bani Yas Island

It was a long weekend here in the UAE this weekend, and one of the ladies from SWEA asked if anyone was interested in coming along to Sir Bani Yas Island for a Pearl Diving trip. She has participated in several already, and I've been wanting to go for while, ever since seeing her many photos of those adventures.

So Pia, Maria and I decided to go along. With Maria's husband away and Nathan and Martin working it turned into a girls trip - well, with kids of course. Here's the team:


Sir Bani Yas Island is one of the largest natural islands in the UAE. It's located about 250 km southwest of Abu Dhabi, so out we set on a road trip to the Western Region. It's not exactly exciting driving, once you get out of Abu Dhabi it's basically 200 km of straight road, with nothing to see but sand, and more sand, before you turn off to get down to the jetty for the boat transfer.

The area of Sir Bani Yas Island is 87 km2 and about half of it is designated as the Arabian Wildlife Park, the UAEs largest nature reserve.

We stopped about half way to have some "fika". We couldn't really find any lay-by, so it ended up being on just the side of the road... ha ha:

Our trip was organized by Major Ali, the president of Emirates Marine Environmental Group, and his team. Major Ali's heritage is closely linked to the island and it's history, both his father and grandfather were pearl divers and dhow captains.
Pearl diving was once the main occupation of the people in the emirates before the discovery of oil. The tradition goes back thousands of years, it used to be the pillar in the economy until the Japanese learned to cultivate pearls in the 1930s. Pearls fished here were traded all over the world, but mainly to India. Unfortunately now it has all but completely died out. Luckily it has left behind a rich heritage of traditions.

We arrived at the jetty in good time and enjoyed some wifi and aircon in the lounge. It has been a hot couple of days, over 40 degrees and rising at the moment.

We got picked up from the jetty in a traditional wooden boat and got treated to coffee and dates on the crossing to the island, which took about half an hour. Getting comfy:

Here you can see what was going to be our camp for the night, the individual tents all lined up, and the bigger one with the supplies on the right:

Upon arrival to the island we were invited to have a traditional snack in the majlis, small pancakes with honey, spiced tea or Arabic coffee, dates and fruit.

Major Ali showed us a movie about the pearl diving traditions. He stopped it every now and then to tell us stories from the past, really made it all sound like a mysterious, ancient legend! He told us all about how the pearl boats would be going out for months at a time with the divers free-diving to astounding depths, hundreds of times each day, with little to no food. We were told about the extremely hard life of the average diver, the complicated customary negotiations when selling the pearls, and much more.

Here's a map of all the known pearl beds in the UAE (there are hundreds!). It practically makes it look like you can't step into the Arabian Gulf without standing on an oyster! Made us very hopeful for our pearl diving expedition the following day!


On the drive to our camp we spotted some animals. The Arabian Oryx, a species of antelope, was formerly extinct in the wild. They were originally brought to this island to be protected by poachers who would kill them for the keratin found in their horns. Sir Bani Yas Island is now home to a herd of over 500 who roam freely on the island. This Arabian Oryx is also the national symbol of the UAE.

We got to settle into to our tents and get set up for the night. We some snacks and the kids all took the opportunity to go for a swim before the sun would go down:

We then were taken back to the majlis for some dinner:

Major Ali showed us some pearls he said he carries around for good luck, traditionally wrapped in red cloth. Pearls would be sorted by size, weight and quality, and a pearl in the size of the yellow tinted one here in the picture would be worth 250,000 dirhams!

After dinner, we went back to the camp and a fire was lit. We had snacks, but unfortunately weren't prepared for bonfire, so no marshmallows for us, which would have been nice. It was a lovely temperature by now so we admired the sunset and enjoyed a bit of a chat before we cosied up in our tents.

After a night of, to be honest, not a particularly good sleep (deflated air mattresses, sleeping bags, over +30 degrees and three people squashed together in a small tent is so not my thing...), some little people woke up at 5.30... So they had to have a play on the beach, not to wake up the rest of the group:

We all had breakfast on the beach before it was time to set off on the boat:

As we pushed back from the dock, we were taught a traditional chant to bring us good luck, and then it was time to recline on the floor cushions as we sailed out to sea.

By the time we anchored, in the middle of the emerald sea, it felt almost as if we had stepped back into another era. It was time to board this pearl diving vessel to do some diving for oysters!

The crew of the pearl diving dhow were all dressed traditionally:

I stayed on the boat as by now I had got a bit sea sick (total wuss, I know), so my job was to take photos of everybody. I had brought my big camera for once which I was really happy about. Look at the colour of that sea, and the clear view down to the bottom!

Each person who wanted to try the pearl diving, was shown the age-old methods they would be using. They had to clung to a weighted rope that was dropped into the water, it then pulled you down to the sea bed around three meters below.

Pia and all the kids were game and tried to find some oysters. Though their experience wasn't quite as hard-core as in the olden days, it was totally traditional. If you wanted to you could even borrow a set of traditional white diving robes to wear, they would be good protection from the jelly fish, although we saw none at all so most people didn't bother.
Here's Pia about to have a go:

It was a bit tricky to manage to equilize the pressure, but all the kids did really well, and both Lucas and Pia actually managed to find an oyster each! Here's Lucas getting ready, and going, with the help of Major Ali who was supervising each and every descent. (There was also a rescue diver on the bottom, just for extra security, even though it was only about 3 meters deep.)

Lucas' oyster!

We opened a few of the oysters already on the boat. All empty unfortunately.

After everybody had done multiple descents and attempts to find and pick up oysters, we sailed on for a bit to do some snorkeling on a nearby island. Again, snacks were served:

Major Ali and Linnea:

We waved goodbye to crew on the pearl diving dhow, which by now had set sail.
Look at this photo, I think it's my favourite of the whole day - the horizon is so hazy that the sky and the sea are melting together..!

We were also spoiled with a group of dolphins coming to play just by our boat! They swam in front of us, under us and played around all over. I didn't quite get a good photo of them as they emerged and disappeared too fast.

A slightly more tired team now in the afternoon... I guess the effects of the previous night crept up on all of us, many naps were taken in all corners of the boat:

We stopped for some more snorkeling and then returned to the dock to have lunch on one of the other boats of Major Ali. Some freshly caught fish, rice and vegetables. It was very tasty, you certainly work up an appetite after a whole morning at sea!
Major Ali then proceeded to start opening up the big batch of oysters we had harvested, one by one:

Luckily (...) he found several pearls - enough for one for each family! They were stunning, all in different shades, shapes and sizes.

(Ha ha, not entirely sure that any of the oysters that we found actually contained any pearls, as they were all just put together in one big basket. I suspect the oysters containing pearls would have been planted to delight us unsuspecting tourists, but hey - who cares? We got a real pearl!)
Here's our family pearl:

We all admired our finds, and while Linnea and I started planning what kind of jewellery we would have made with our pearl, Lucas pondered how much it might be worth...!

I was on the trip too! :)

Before our boat transfer back to the mainland, Major Ali wanted to give us all one last special experience of Sir Bani Yas Island. We got to takes turns in groups to come along in his jeep for a quick drive and mini-safari to have a look at a few of the over 30 different species of animals they have here on the island. Some species are indigenous to the area and many are considered critically endangered or vulnerable, such as the sea turtles, the Arabian Oryx and the sand gazelles.
They also have cheetas and hyenas - brought in to keep the exploding population of gazelle in check - blackbucks, dugongs and sheep.

We saw huge amount of ostriches, peacocks and other small animals, AND - we were lucky to be the only group that spotted this tower of giraffes, idly chomping on trees at the side of the road. I love giraffes!

What amazing memories we have come away with from these two days! Such a special experience!

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