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Mariners across the kingdom are congregating almost every weekend in September and October to compete in a series of pearl-diving, fishing and boating competitions as part of the second edition of the Nasser bin Hamad Marine Heritage Season.
The season, which started on August 3 and will end on October 26, is being organised by the Bahrain Inherited Traditional Sports Committee under the oversight of the Bahrain Olympic Committee with the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Representative of His Majesty the King for Charity Works and Youth Affairs and Chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports.
The aim of the three-month event is to preserve Bahrain’s marine heritage through traditional and inherited maritime sports and activities.
Ahmed Almalki, who is part of the heritage season’s organising committee and in-charge of the pearl-diving competition, said: “Last year, pearl diving was open to only free divers. This year, because of the feedback we received, we decided to open it up to scuba divers as well. The first three weeks of the pearl diving competition were still reserved for the traditional free divers, but for the other four weeks, the competition is focused on modern pearl diving techniques.”
The organisers also found that due to events being held simultaneously last year, many people who would have competed in all three were forced to choose one. This time around, the competition was staggered so that pearl diving took place primarily during the first leg of the season with the final competition slated for this weekend. The fishing competition will take place this weekend and next, with the traditional boat racing starting next weekend and running until the end of October.
As a result, this year, 15-25 teams competed every week with each team comprising of three to six divers. The island’s first female competitive oyster chucker and this week’s front page star, Noor Showaiter and her family, have been one of these teams during the modern technique pearl diving competitions
Every week, BD8,700 is up for grabs in the pearl diving competition with the winning team taking home BD2,000. The teams are judged based on the weight of the pearls in their haul. Divers have been waking up as early as 4am to go out to the sea, reaching as far as 25 nautical miles off the northern coast, weather permitting.
On windier days, like this past Saturday, they were not able to go out as far, scouring the shallow waters for oysters. Each team brings back 3,000 to 4,000 oysters every week, sitting together afterwards for nearly four hours to shuck the oysters, hoping to see a glint or two of the elusive pearl.
Sometimes, teams luck out and find clusters of them together which will someday be the centrepiece of a necklace adorning the nape of a lucky lady.
After all the oysters are shucked, teams collect their spoils and bring them for review to Ahmed Mattar, the tawash/pearl trader who weighs and grades them, based on weight.
On an individual pearl basis, typically a tawash uses the chow, calculated by squaring the carat weight and then multiplying by 0.65185. However, in this competition, since it was a team effort, prizes were awarded based on total weight, measured in grams or traditionally, mithqals (roughly equivalent to 4.25 grams).
Ahmed said: “Sometimes, you only get seed pearls. Sometimes, there are larger pearls. One week, we got as much as 2.5 mithqals (roughly 10g) from a team, but some weeks, it’s difficult to crack even half a mithqal. It all depends on the sea, weather and luck.”
According to the Marine Heritage Season’s Instagram page, this past weekend’s winner Yusuf Yaqoob Yusuf nabbed 3.406gm worth of pearls and took home BD2,000, with the second place winner Ahmed Abdulla Al Thawadi taking home BD1,500 and third place winner Mohammed Hassan Al Ruwaie taking home BD1,200.
These prizes come at the behest of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. At the closing ceremonies of last year’s season, His Majesty the King gave directives to His Highness Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, First Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council of Youth and Sports and President of Bahrain Olympic Committee, to increase the prizes in the next marine heritage festivals and seasons to motivate participants and revive Bahrain’s rich marine heritage, as reported by the Bahrain News Agency.
Over the duration of the seven weeks, BD60,900 will be given away to the winners of the competition. The traditional methods first place finishers of the Al Hayr Pearl diving and Oyster competition were awarded the cups of His Highness Shaikh Hamdan bin Nasser Al Khalifa, His Highness Shaikh Abdullah bin Khalid Al Khalifa and His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Nasser Al Khalifa.
The modern methods first place finishers of the competition series have so far won the cups of Shaikh Faisal bin Khalid Al Khalifa, Shaikh Hamad bin Nasser Al Khalifa and Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
This weekend, the Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa Cup, will be the final competition of the pearl diving segment of the competition and will kick off the fishing competition.
The fishing competition will bring together mariners seeking five varieties of Bahrain’s aquatic citizens – the kingfish or king mackerel, hamour, barracuda, emperor fish and cobia.
Teams will head out to designated fishing waters for 24 hours and try to bring in the biggest entrant for each category and nab one or more of the top 15 prizes – three for each of the five fish categories.
And the hugely popular ‘Al Shahoof’ competition – races in traditional shahoof wooden boats manned by 10 sailors and guided by an 11th will cap off the season. There will be five preliminary races, each race in honour of one of Shaikh Nasser’s or Shaikh Khalid’s sons.
The races will start at Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Park in Hidd where all the competitions have taken place and finish at the National Museum.
HM the King is expected to watch the races for the 3km Shaikh Nasser Cup and the 2km Shaikh Khalid Cup, on October 26, from the National Museum, before bestowing an as-yet unannounced top prize on the winning teams.
Seventeen teams are expected to participate, each with 15 members, 11 on the boat and four spare to vie for this honour as well as the BD10,500 in weekly prizes.
Perhaps more importantly, the event, as well as the entire maritime heritage season has rejuvenated interest among the youth in traditional and inherited sports.
Noor, for example, said: “The sea is part of our tradition. I have always been fascinated by it and this competition gave me the push I needed to get my license and try something different for me, but part of my legacy.”