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Hailing from a family of Bahraini confectioners, Noor Showaiter has set her eyes on an even sweeter prize – pearls.
The lifelong mariner has become the country’s first competitive oyster shucker as she participated in the modern pearl competition of the Shaikh Nasser Maritime Heritage Season.
Noor, who has been in the water as early as she can remember, decided to join her father, Sameer Jassim in the festival, which is holding its second iteration until October.
A telecommunications engineer by day, diver on the weekends and mother of a one-year-old daughter around the clock, Noor hopes to inspire others, and especially women, to pay tribute to the age-old Bahraini pearl-diving tradition and explore the waters surrounding the island.
She said with a broad grin and a longing glance towards the sea: “For me, getting the pearl diving license is about being able to explore deeper waters and see the aquatic life within Bahrain’s seas. It’s a different world down there altogether. The water gets cooler and once you go deeper towards the pearl beds, you start to see the sea in a new light, literally.”
Her father, who has always been her biggest supporter and is now her diving buddy whenever the two of them go into the water, added: “It’s like switching from watching a TV in black and white to colour.”
Sameer got his pearl diving license almost four years ago and Noor got hers earlier this summer, taking barely any time to dive head first into ‘pearl-icious’ waters. The license comes after five days of intensive training, during which students learn about what kinds of oysters to pick and how to ensure they are farmed sustainably.
This is capped off with a test dive in a pool and finally, a trip out to sea to exhibit their newly acquired skills. Pearl diving, even with modern technology like scuba gear, is a team endeavour, with each team at the competition bringing together three to six divers. For Noor and Sameer, it’s a different kind of family trip.
The father-daughter duo from Hidd, joined by Noor’s brother Ibrahim as well as a couple of their cousins went out on August 24 and 31 at 4am to Hair Shtaya Marine Reserve, which is 25 nautical miles north of the island and has a depth of 8m to 12m.
The Hair Shtaya site, which is one of the most popular diving destinations in the kingdom because of its spellbinding underwater sights and sea creatures, can also be treacherous because of its high waves and unpredictable underwater currents.
But the team is a veteran of the wiley waters and picked more than 2,000 oysters, each member doing two 45-minute dives, with a 45-minute break in-between.
The team then returned to shore and worked together to cut each oyster open. Their haul during their first dive was 3.71 grams, almost one mithqal. The second dive brought in 3.41 grams.
One mithqal, the traditional stone weight used to grade pearls, is roughly equal to 4.25 grams. Of course, each dive’s success relies predominantly on luck. Some teams brought in as much as 2.5 mithqals while others have had unsuccessful dives with only seed pearls to show for it.
“When the weather permits and the winds are not too wild, the divers can go further out, dive deeper and bring back bigger pearls,” said Ahmed Mattar, the tawash or pearl trader who reviews the pearls each team brings back, weighing and grading them in order to decide the winner. “This competition is judged based on the quantity, in grams, brought back by each team, as opposed to size of each pearl.”
Even though the Showaiters have not won the top honours this season, this was the first time competing for most of them. They will also be competing this weekend in the final iteration of the pearl diving contest of the Heritage Festival for this year.
Sameer said: “Last year the competition was for traditional free divers only. This year was the first year that they opened the competition up to divers who used scuba gear. Most of the team is pearl diving competitively for the first time. More than the hunt for pearls, we enjoyed the sea and working together to have fun out there.”
Noor intends to keep diving as long as she can and hopes to get her daughter in the water as soon as it’s safe and possible. She has already inspired her husband Khalid to get his pearl diving license as well, even though he decided not to compete this time.
Next up for the Scuba-diving Showaiters is a trip to Sharm El Shaikh at the southern tip of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.
Noor said: “Bahrain’s waters are great and feel like home, but sometimes, visibility is an issue. You can only see a few metres around you at any given time. But Sharm El Shaikh, I hear, is beautiful underwater and you can see for up to 80m."