100 Years Ago, Pearl Diving Provided Lifeblood of Farasan Islands' Society

Exactly 100 years ago, pearl diving provided the lifeblood of the Farasan Islands' economy and society. Each year in early May, ship captains and skilled divers would leave their families to embark on a dangerous four-month quest to find natural pearls off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea.

To reach the oyster beds, divers would use weights on their feet to descend more than 12 meters (39 feet). A lifeline would connect them to their surface support who helped them ascend. In return for hauling the divers back up, these assistants would receive a share (known as “dangeel”) of the collected oysters. Pearl divers were able to hold their breath underwater for up to five minutes.

The divers' work day would start just after sunrise, with mollusk gathering continuing until noon. That was followed by a rest period. During the afternoons, divers would take on the laborious task of prying open oysters (the “fulq” process) in search of elusive natural pearls.

According to the Saudi Press Agency, diving tasks were divided into five-day cycles. The first four days' haul belonged to the diver, while the fifth day's bounty went to the ship owner.

Seven copper sieves, each with progressively smaller holes, were used to sort the pearls by size. The most elusive prize was the “Al-Dana” pearl, characterized by its large size, bright luster and absence of flaws. This type of pearl was so coveted that it spawned its own form of folk music. The melancholic genre, born from the depths of the sea, served as an outlet for the sailors' longing for home and loved ones.

Natural pearls are exceedingly rare because they are created by mollusks randomly, without human intervention. When a grain of sand or similar irritant gets between the mollusk’s shell and its mantle tissue, the process begins. To protect itself, the mollusk instinctually secretes multiple layers of nacre, an iridescent material that eventually becomes a pearl.

Cultured pearls, by contrast, are created with human intervention — when a bead is embedded inside the body of the mollusk to stimulate nacre secretion.

The Farasan pearl-diving industry thrived a century ago, as evidenced by the construction of the Najdi Mosque and stunning homes financed by successful pearl traders of the 1920s. Some of these are tourist destinations today.

At the end of April and early-May each year, the Farasan Islands’ Hareed Festival pays tribute to the local fishing and pearl diving heritage. While still an important part of the Farasan story, natural pearl harvesting has since faded as an economic factor with the advent of cultured and simulated pearls.

Credits: Images courtesy of Saudi Press Agency.