Doha, Qatar – Just a century ago, the pearl trade made up three-quarters of the region’s exports.
Diving was a popular profession for Qataris before oil and gas were discovered. It was hard and dangerous work that required great skill and courage from the fishermen who hunted the pearls.
Men would embark on long voyages, often away from home for months, cramped together on the deck of a ship. Underwater, they would hold their breath for up to two minutes at a depth of up to 18 metres (59 feet), often with a peg on their nose.
The demanding conditions took a severe physical toll on those men. Many never made it back home.
Mohammed Abdulla al-Sada, 36, is one Qatari carrying on the tradition. He likes to dive at least three times a week, scouring the seabed for oysters, hoping to find a dana pearl.
Dana pearls are large, heavy and perfectly round – prized attributes for use in jewellery.
“If someone finds a dana, their name will be with it forever. They will say Mohammed al-Sada found this dana on this day of this year,” he told Al Jazeera.
Pearl diving runs in his family. His grandfather and uncle were also pearl divers.
“Almost every Qatari had a relative who was a pearl diver,” al-Sada added. “In those days, it was very hard, unlike today.”
Even today, pearl diving poses several risks.
Al-Sada said he once blacked out trying to retrieve two Pinctada maxima oysters from the seabed, each weighing roughly 2kg (4lbs). Luckily, his diving partner was there to help him.
Another time, he said, his boat sank, leaving him and a friend stranded in the sea for an hour before a passing boat discovered them.
Saad Ismail al-Jassem has a shop in Qatar’s Souq Waqif which is packed with pearl necklaces and trinkets from the bygone industry.
Jassem, now 87, became a pearl diver when he was 18. He greets visitors to his shop with tales of the trade, and demonstrations of his physical strength.