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Pearl diving was one of Qatar's main industries until the early 1940s when oil replaced it. After being the major industry of the area for thousands of years, pearl diving was a decaying profession by the 1930s, after the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls and the Great Depression made pearl diving unprofitable. Even though pearling is no longer a thriving industry, it remains a beloved part of Qatari culture.
History and Decline of the Pearling Industry
Pearls were treasured in the ancient world, especially by Arabs, Romans, and Egyptians. These areas were largely supplied by the pearling industry in the Persian Gulf, with pearl divers working hard to keep up with the high demand from trading partners in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
Pearl diving was risky and physically taxing. The lack of oxygen, the fast change in water pressure, and the sharks and other marine predators made pearl diving a very dangerous profession. Despite the danger, however, the high value of the pearls made pearl diving a profitable profession.
When Japan created oyster farms in the mid-1920s to generate cultured pearls, the pearl market became glutted. In addition, the advent of the Great Depression in the 1930s devastated the pearl market as people no longer had extra money for luxury items such as pearls.
With the market for pearls drying up, it was a miraculous event for the Qatari people when oil was discovered in 1939, changing their entire way of life.
How Pearls Are Formed
Pearls are formed when a foreign object enters the shell of an oyster, mussel, or other mollusk and becomes trapped. This object can be a parasite, grain of sand, or small piece of shell, but more commonly it is a food particle.
To protect itself from the particle, the mollusk releases layers of aragonite (the mineral calcium carbonate) and conchiolin (a protein). Over a period of two to five years, these layers build up and form a pearl.
In oysters and freshwater mussels, nacre (mother of pearl) gives pearls their natural luster. Pearls from other mollusks have a porcelain-like texture and don't shine like pearls with nacre do.
Qatar is a perfect place to find such beautiful, shiny pearls. Because of its abundant freshwater springs, the water there is part salty and part fresh, an ideal environment for nacre formation. (Most of the fresh water comes from the Shatt al Arab River.)
Cultured pearls follow the same essential formation process as natural pearls, but they are created under carefully controlled conditions on a pearl farm.
Traditionally, Qatar's pearl fishers made two annual boat voyages during the June-September fishing season. There was a long trip (two months) and a shorter trip (40 days). Most pearling boats (often called a “dhow”) contained 18-20 men.
Without modern technology, pearl diving was extremely dangerous. The men didn't use oxygen tanks; instead, they pinched their noses with pieces of wood and held their breaths for up to two minutes.
They would also often wear a sheath made of leather on their hands and feet to protect them from the rocky surfaces found below. Then they would throw a rope with a rock tied at the end into the water and jump in.
These divers would often swim over 100 feet below, quickly use their knife or a rock to pry oysters and other mollusks off of rocks or the sea floor and place the oysters in a rope bag that they had hung around their necks. When they could hold their breath no more, the diver would pull on the rope and be pulled back up to the boat.
Their load of mollusks would then be dumped on the deck of the ship and they would dive again for more. Divers would continue this process throughout the day.
At nighttime, the dives would stop and they would all open the oysters to look for the valuable pearls. They could go through thousands of oysters before finding even one pearl.
Not all dives went smoothly, however. Diving that deep meant that rapid changes in pressure could cause serious medical problems, including bends and shallow water blackout.
Also, the divers were not always alone down there. Sharks, snakes, barracudas, and other aquatic predators were rampant in the waters near Qatar, and would sometimes attack divers.
The pearl diving industry got even more complicated when colonial tycoons got involved. They would sponsor pearling voyages but require half of the divers' profits. If it was a good voyage, then all could become wealthy; if it was not, then the divers could become indebted to the sponsor.
Between this exploitation and the health risks involved with pearling, divers lived strenuous lives with little reward.
Pearl Diving Culture in Qatar Today
While pearl fishing is no longer vital to Qatar's economy, it is celebrated as a part of Qatari culture. Annual pearl diving competitions and cultural celebrations are held.
The four-day Senyar pearl diving and fishing competition recently boasted more than 350 participants, navigating between Fasht and Katara Beach on traditional ships.
The annual Qatar Marine Festival is a free event that hosts not only pearl diving demonstrations but also a seal show, dancing waters, food, an elaborate musical play, and miniature golf. It is a fun event for families to learn about their culture and have some fun too.