For underwater thrill-seekers, scuba diving is a way to explore exotic marina flora and fauna. However, for hundreds of impoverished women inhabiting the 100-odd coastal villages in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, the activity is the only way to put food on the table.
The intrepid divers, who range in age from 20 to 70, and inhabit hamlets such as Keelakarai, Erwadi, Rameswaram and Pamban in Ramanathapuram district, deep-dive around the 21 islands of the Gulf of Mannar to harvest seaweed growing on the surface of submerged rocks.
The shallow bay has a 365-kilometre coastline, and is teeming with coral reefs and fascinating creatures such as the critically endangered dugongs (sea cows), sharks, whale sharks, sea horses, green and hawksbill sea turtles, dolphins and sea cucumbers. It is also rich in high-quality seaweed packed with minerals and vitamins that commands a premium from pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies.
But what’s remarkable is that the fisherwomen, who are unable to afford pricey scuba diving suits or oxygen cylinders, jump into the rough sea wearing only saris and rubber slippers. Bandaging their hands with cloth to prevent injuries from sharp protruding rocks, they wade deep into the waters to extract seaweed and deposit it in a satchel strapped to their backs.
“We sail out into the ocean early morning with local fishermen in their boats. For a good harvest, we have to stay at a selected island for five to six days, leaving our families behind,” says Suganthi Ravi, 37, from Narikuzhi village.
Ravi collects "Kappaphycus" seaweed, also known as elkhorn sea moss, a species of red algae bought by seaweed-processing companies to manufacture value-added products for the food processing and agriculture industries.
Seaweed is a type of marine algae. Its consumption by humans dates back to the fourth century. “It grows on hard surfaces such as rocks, stones and dead coral, and is used in the manufacture of drugs and chemicals and as a thickening jelly-like agent [agar agar] in food,” says Dr Sreedhar Shekhar, a marine biologist from Chennai.
"India has a long and vibrant 7,500kilometre-long coastline which lends itself very well to seaweed cultivation. The plant has great commercial value and is now being recognised as a renewable source of food, energy, chemicals and medicine."
Reports suggest that given its surging demand, seaweed may be a $26 billion industry globally by 2025. However, for these fisherwomen, one kilogram of seaweed fetches a paltry 20 rupees ($0.30) in the market, with a haul from one trip averaging 40kg to 50kg.
Even so, the divers are happy that their profession gives them an identity and a source of income, about $100-$150 monthly. “My earnings may be meagre, but it has helped me raise a big family, educate my four kids and marry off two daughters. None of my children are interested in my profession, but I’m proud of it and will continue until the day I die,” says Ravi.
Muniyaayi, 55, a mother of four who also sells basic grocery items from a makeshift, single-person "petti kada" stall as a side business, says despite her large family, she doesn't depend on anyone. “My eldest daughter has studied up to bachelor's level and got married. I work for myself and financially assist my children, too, if they ask.”
Mary, 60, who started seaweed harvesting when she was just 7 without her parents' knowledge, feels proud and self-empowered. “I have three sons and one daughter. But I’m not dependent on my children nor on my husband. I’ve never taken a single paisa from anyone in my life.”
Seaweed collection offers a vital support system for these unlettered women who have never gone to school. “We have no social support system, nor any financial assistance from the government, either. My husband died young leaving our two young kids behind, which pushed me to collect seaweed even though I was petrified of water,” says Mary.
Personal struggles aside, professional challenges have also tested the women’s resolve. In 1986, the Gulf of Mannar was declared a National Biodiversity Park under India’s Wildlife Protection Act, which prohibited people from diving here. They still go, though, albeit without permission, keeping an eye out for anti-poaching officials.
Environmental challenges have further added to their travails. The older fisherwomen point out that when they started accompanying their mothers and grandmothers into the sea in the 1970s and 1980s, their collection of seaweed was substantially larger. But now, owing to global warming, the harvest has whittled down considerably.
“The nature of the sea has also changed,” says diver Namthai, 73, who has been collecting seaweed since she was 13. "It is warmer and rougher due to which we now have to spend more time underwater. We also have to swim farther from the coast than we used to."
Known as the “brave grandma”, the septuagenarian rues she can only collect 15kg of seaweed in a day due to her age, compared to a young diver’s 50kg.
The divers also complain that their incomes have been divided as more divers take to the waters, which impacts the seaweed population in the region. Given these challenges, the women are leveraging their wealth of knowledge about the gulf waters to protect it.
Lakshmi Moorthy, 50, a seaweed collector from Chinnapalam village who started diving at 14, is the leader of a group of divers in her area. She says that the women are aware of the perils of global warming and are taking steps to protect the marine ecosystem on which they have depended for sustenance for generations.
“We take care never to overharvest the seaweed. Our cultivation cycle is restricted to 12 days a month. We also avoid harvesting between April and June, when fish breeding is at its peak. We hop between the islands of the region to take only what we need and not stress one particular region.”
Moorthy received the "Conservationist of the Year" award from US NGO Seacology in 2015 as a representative of the 2,000-plus women who protect the biosphere in the Gulf of Mannar. The honour included a glass trophy and a $10,000 prize.
She says she has also mobilised local fisherwomen to launch a union of seaweed harvesters. More than 600 of them have started cultivating seaweed on bamboo rafts, which helps save time and labour-intensive trips to the islands while ensuring a good harvest throughout the year, especially during the prohibited fish breeding months.
This hardy profession has taken a toll on the divers’ health, though. “Due to the prolonged exposure to the composition of water in the Gulf of Mannar, our hair colour changes and our teeth look stained, both of which make us look older," says Ravi. "Our hearing also gets impacted as we dive down to between six and 12 feet. At times, seashells give us deep gashes on our feet. Many divers have a problem finding a good match."
For these reasons, the profession has few takers among the younger generations. Parvathi, 50, from Chinnapalam village, who has been diving since age 10 to collect Gelidiella acerosa, a type of seaweed that's used to make agar agar, thinks she’s probably the last of her tribe.
“Our life is very tough and fraught with risks. Not everybody is so brave," she says. "We don't want our daughters to follow our paths. Instead, we want them to study and go for a white-collar job.”