I haven't seen that much of it, but I am amazed by what I find, and at times, amused by my amazement.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pearl Diving in Bahrain

This is the first of two blogs about pearl diving in Bahrain.  The second one will be from a historical standpoint. 
It's quite a story in its own right...

Waiting for the dive boat (first trip)

Loading up Mohammed's boat.  A pair of traditional fishing dhows are moored behind us.

Sitting on the rail of Mohammed’s boat, getting ready to enter the waters of the Arabian Gulf thirty miles off the coast of Bahrain, I make one last check of my scuba equipment. It is January, and the sea has cooled since my first dive here in September. The water temperature is now 70 degrees, and while that might be warm for Pacific Northwest water, it's definitely cold for these parts, where summer water temps run in the mid-80s.

This is my second dive trip in Bahrain and the first time I have been diving without Joann. It is also the first time wearing a full wetsuit. Its bulk is unfamiliar and I am having a harder time locating the regulator, the backup regulator, the air valves on my BCD (Buoyancy Compensation Device) vest, and the gauges. I am definitely the novice on this trip. Robin Bugeja, the dive master, estimates she has about 8000 dives under her weight belt.
Robin gets ready

The other two divers, John and Sian are on their first pearl dive, although they ran a diving service of their own in the past. Rob Gregory, who together with Robin own and operate PEARLDIVE, has the longest dive history of all, getting his start when he was hired by Walt Disney Studios as an underwater photographer during the 1969 filming of "Hamad and the Pirates" shot in the waters off Bahrain.  He is along on this trip to get video footage for a documentary he is putting together promoting World Heritage Site status for Bahrain’s pearl beds.

John and Sian ready to dive

Finally, I am ready. On Robin’s signal I put one hand on my mask to keep it in place, hold onto the camera lashed to my vest with the other, and tip over backward, splashing tankfirst into the sea. Surfacing, I signal everything is okay, and swim toward the line descending from the back of the boat. Sinking slowly along the line, letting air out of my BCD and equalizing the pressure in my ears and sinuses, I am soon hovering just above the bottom, 40 feet down. At the bottom of the line a weight and a net basket move slowly above the sea floor, pulled along by the boat drifting in the current.

 The weighted basket is kept off the bottom by a bright orange float bag, open on the bottom for adding air as the basket gets heavier with collected oysters. Visibility is good and I can clearly see the sandy bottom covered with clumps of oysters, small coral, and sea urchins. Thirty feet away is another line, this one hung from the front of the boat, also with weight and basket, and the two other divers, one on each side of the line, holding on with one hand and prying oysters loose from the bottom and dropping them into the basket with the other hand.
Oyster pickers

My attention today is focused more on collecting pictures, and less on collecting oysters. I want to test out the new camera I bought  yesterday. It is an Olympus Stylus Tough digital camera that claims to be waterproof down to 10 meters. We are going down to 12 meters, and I hope there is a built in fudge-factor that will keep the camera dry at that depth.
The camera still works!

Robin is the last one in and she soon joins us, checking lines, drift and divers as she goes. She has her own camera, the same model as mine and we take pictures of each other, before turning the cameras toward the scenes around us. Picking up the occasional oyster, I spend most of my time learning to manipulate the new camera underwater. The gloves I am wearing to protect my hands from the sharp edged clams and spiny urchins make me feel even more clumsy and are the first to go, tucking them into a pocket of my vest. I am woefully unfamiliar with the location of all the buttons and features and this camera is full of them, so I stick to one underwater setting and hope for the best.

Pearls in these, I'm sure

My second dive is a repeat of the first, only more productive. The current is not as strong, I am a bit more familiar with the camera. I am more relaxed and my tank of air lasts longer. After the dive, I somehow lose my snorkel as I am taking off my weight belt, tank and fins in the water before climbing the ladder back onto the boat. Robin surfaces behind me with it in her hand, having snatched it up as it floated down past her. All in a day’s work for a dive master.

Urchin-eyed Robin
Looking for pearls

Rob videos the action

It is now early afternoon and approaching time to return to the harbor. I still have a night’s work at the embassy to look forward to. In two dives John and Sian have picked up about 300 oysters. They start opening them on the boat in search of pearls while Rob videos and Mohammed utilizes some of the oyster meat to fish for dinner.

Mohammed fishes with oyster guts.  He will catch two or three fish, the largest about 12 inches. 

I manage to take several pictures, but only collect about 30 oysters. Those I will take back to my apartment and check for pearls later.

On the return trip, we encounter a pod of 25 to 30 dolphins, jumping and splashing in the water ahead of us.  Dolphins are a fairly common sight in this area, but this group is especially large and playful.

Dolphin movies

Hangin' with ma

Mohammed cuts our speed to a crawl as we pass the dolphins, and he steers the boat in a large circle. The dolphins swarm around and under our boat, pacing our speed and peering up at us, jumping and showing off. For half an hour we make lazy circles, cameras clicking. Most of the pictures, of course are of empty water where dolphins just were, but I manage to capture some of the antics.  Once again I wish I was more familiar with the camera.
Under the boat

I'm not sure if I will have another chance to dive before I leave Bahrain.  February/March is the worst time of year for diving in the Arabian Gulf.  Besides the colder water temperature, the winds and currents keep the surface of the sea choppy and the underwater visibility reduced.  Good diving days are less frequent and harder to plan for with my work schedule.  Robin has taken advantage of the season and has gone to visit her Australian roots for the month.  Rob is up to his ears with video-editing.

What about those oysters I brought back?  They spend almost a week in the bottom of my fridge.  When I do get them out and open them up, I find two small pearls - both in the same oyster.  The report from John and Sian is 38 pearls out of their 300 oysters, a very good haul!