Photos: Pearl diving tradition being kept alive in Qatar

Men would embark on long voyages, often away from home for months, cramped together on the deck of a ship.

Mohammed Abdulla al-Sada dives without breathing equipment, carrying a net around his neck to collect oysters. [Courtesy Michael Ramjay Ondoy Ecija]
Just a century ago, the pearl trade made up three-quarters of the region’s exports.

Diving was a popular profession for Qataris before oil and gas were discovered. It was hard and dangerous work that required great skill and courage from the fishermen who hunted the pearls.

Men would embark on long voyages, often away from home for months, cramped together on the deck of a ship. Underwater, they would hold their breath for up to two minutes at a depth of up to 18 metres (59 feet), often with a peg on their nose.

The demanding conditions took a severe physical toll on those men. Many never made it back home.

Mohammed Abdulla al-Sada, 36, is one Qatari carrying on the tradition. He likes to dive at least three times a week, scouring the seabed for oysters, hoping to find a dana pearl.

Dana pearls are large, heavy and perfectly round – prized attributes for use in jewellery.

“If someone finds a dana, their name will be with it forever. They will say Mohammed al-Sada found this dana on this day of this year,” he told Al Jazeera.

Pearl diving runs in his family. His grandfather and uncle were also pearl divers.

“Almost every Qatari had a relative who was a pearl diver,” al-Sada added. “In those days, it was very hard, unlike today.”

Even today, pearl diving poses several risks.

Al-Sada said he once blacked out trying to retrieve two Pinctada maxima oysters from the seabed, each weighing roughly 2kg (4lbs). Luckily, his diving partner was there to help him.

Another time, he said, his boat sank, leaving him and a friend stranded in the sea for an hour before a passing boat discovered them.

Saad Ismail al-Jassem has a shop in Qatar’s Souq Waqif which is packed with pearl necklaces and trinkets from the bygone industry.

Jassem, now 87, became a pearl diver when he was 18. He greets visitors to his shop with tales of the trade, and demonstrations of his physical strength.

Mohammed Abdulla Al-Sada returns to the surface and put the net with oysters on the boat. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
He said he enjoys diving because ‘you never know when you’ll find a big pearl, you have to keep faith’. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
Pearl diving runs in his family. His grandfather and uncle were also pearl divers. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
Al-Sada talks about the dive with Michael (right), who used to be a diving instructor in the Philippines. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
Most of the oysters without pearls are cast back into the ocean for the fish, and some are set aside for breakfast. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
Al-Sada shows a pearl from a previous dive. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
Saad Ismail al-Jassem, now 87, became a pearl diver when he was 18. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
Al-Jassem was once a weightlifter. His shop bears the name ‘Pahlwan’, translating to ‘strongman’ or ‘wrestler’. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
A stone weight that divers would hook one foot in the stirrup and press down against the rock with their other foot. Together, along with a basket around their neck, they would plunge into the ocean. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
A nose clip used in the past by pearl divers. Al-Jassem says they would work from sunrise to sunset without breathing equipment or goggles. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
Japan began cultivating pearls in the 1920s, leading to a decline in the Arabian pearl trade. [Kenneth Gell/Al Jazeera]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Coverpage’s editorial stance

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