Why you should care
If you find a pearl while diving on this historic tour, it’s yours to keep.
Before oil was discovered in the Persian Gulf in the early 20th century, the major business in the region was pearling. It involved diving for oysters on the ocean bed and selling them to jewelry makers and merchants. The bustling pearling industry, often dangerous to divers, was the pillar of Bahrain’s economy.
Now the ancient tradition is being revisited — in the form of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Bahrain Pearling Trail, on Muharraq Island, is the world’s last remaining intact pearling site. The hourlong trek takes visitors through port buildings, offshore oyster beds and a fort. There are also stops at the former homes of wealthy merchants, shops and a mosque. If you’re feeling adventurous, strap on some scuba gear and try your luck in the sea.
Pearl diving began in Bahrain at least 2,000 years ago — it was first mentioned in the Assyrian texts referring to the Dilmun civilization. For the duration of pearling season — June to September — diving ships, known as banoosh (or “boom”), each with a crew of 60 divers, would set sail daily from the Bu Maher port, the heart of the industry. Oysters containing the purest and whitest of pearls are found in deep waters.
Alhough there is no longer a pearl diving industry in Bahrain, it remains the country’s biggest tourist attraction.
The three-hour excursion (32 Bahraini dinar, or about $85) starts at the Bu Maher port, and includes a two-hour dive at one of four dive sites and a guided tour of the 3.5-kilometer pearling trail. All diving expeditions originate at Ras Rayyah, the northern tip of Muharraq. “Bu Amamma is a much deeper diving site, which makes locating oysters a bit more challenging,” says Miranda Castello, who recently dived at the site on the tour. She was drawn, she says, to the “warm, shallow water with miles of oyster beds.” For beginners or visitors without a Professional Association of Diving Instructors license, Sayah, the site closest to the shore, is the best option. Divers are allowed to collect as many as 60 oysters per dive. This quota — and the tours — is monitored by the government to ensure sustainability.
After a morning dive, visitors get a lesson on key pearl-trading history and follow the path of jewelry designer and explorer Jacques Cartier, who visited Bahrain in the early 20th century. A tour of the Bu Maher fort is followed by a stop at the visitor’s center, where some of the most expensive pearls found by divers — and now in the government’s custody — are on display. The rest of the trek takes visitors through 17 timber buildings crafted in the arabesque style.
The government of Bahrain has been making efforts to restore and conserve the island’s older structures threatened by the high humidity. A major restoration took place in 2002, initiated by Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa, president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities (BACA). The project included the renovation of the merchant houses and opening a center for culture and research, which “resulted in a big boost in tourist influx on the island,” says Waleed Ibrahim, a BACA media representative.
Although there is no longer a pearl diving industry in Bahrain, it remains the country’s biggest tourist attraction, one that, along with other tourist sites, contributes 9.7 percent to the overall economy.
Will you get rich diving for pearls in the beautiful waters off Bahrain? Unlikely. There’s about a 5 percent chance of finding one pearl. Most are found in old oysters, which lie deep on the ocean floor. Still, the prospect is enticing. And if you don’t luck out? At least you participated in an age-old cultural tradition.