Livelihood Issues

Freediving in the Palk Bay

    Freediving or breath-hold diving for pearl oysters (Pinctada fucata) and the sacred chank (Turbinella pyrum) has been practised for hundreds of years in the Palk Bay.
    Freediving or breath-hold diving for pearl oysters (Pinctada fucata) and the sacred chank (Turbinella pyrum) has been practised for hundreds of years in the Palk Bay. However, today, only a few villages, such as Karangadu, Devipattinam and Olaikuda in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, are sites of breath-hold diving, mostly for the collection of chanks.
    Among the few changes in freediving over the last two millennia is the introduction of the dive mask. It made its appearance in these waters around the 1950s. The design is modelled on the early single-window mask with a flat elliptical lens. The mask is held in place with a band of tyre rubber pulled over the head. The diver grips the rubber lining around the glass by biting it gently with his teeth or just holding it with the upper lip. Fishers find diving with masks more comfortable and profitable; almost no diver enters the water without it today. These masks are made in nearby towns and cities, and sometimes the components are sourced and the mask is assembled locally. Older divers recall buying their masks in Sri Lanka, while others sourced them from Thoothukudi, Madurai or Coimbatore. Unlike the two-window mask used in snorkelling or scuba diving these days, the mask used in Palk Bay does not allow the diver to use the Valsalva manoeuvre (pinching the nose, closing the mouth and blowing air out through one’s nose) to equalise pressure in the ears and sinuses while descending.
    Swim fins, or pairs of circular fin plates locally known as “thatthu”, is the other innovation, apart from the dive mask, in freediving in this region. Made of flattened aluminium with nylon strips as toe and ankle straps, these can be fashioned using even discarded material. The short circular fin plates appear to allow for greater manoeuvrability and, in combination with the sideways kick rather than the up-down motion of recreational swim fins, provide quick bursts of acceleration. Colonial records make no mention of either masks or fins, and fishers’ oral accounts establish their entry only around the 1950s. Unlike in the Gulf of Mannar, in the Palk Bay’s shallow waters, divers often prefer using a single fin plate on one foot, leaving the other foot bare in order to reduce the extra buoyancy from the fin plate. The final item of attire is a simple waist bag, mostly fashioned out of discarded netting, tied to the diver’s waist to store the catch.
    A 2004 study by the scholars K. Athiyaman and N. Rajan noted that in order to yield large supplies, pearl and chank fisheries had to be conducted as large-scale operations often with hundreds of boats and skilled divers controlled by the state machinery. Today, breath-hold diving for chank in the Palk Bay takes place as an individual enterprise, a situation that arose after chank fishers organised themselves and wrested control of the fisheries from the Tamil Nadu government in the 1970s.
    The Palk Bay is a shallow region where the depth exceeds 15 metres only in some areas. The shallow water, along with oceanographic qualities such as seabed features, salinity, sedimentation, water currents and temperature, makes for a rich marine biodiversity dominated by seagrass ecosystems.
    There have not been any detailed studies on nutrition, health or medicinal practices of fishers for relief from common problems associated with diving, such as ear injuries or inflamed sinuses. A number of divers in the Palk Bay speak of traditional home cures and remedies to address ear barotraumas. To bring relief to pain in the inner ear, coconut or neem oil is first poured into a heated red chilli. After cooling the oil slightly, it is poured from the chilli directly into the ears of the diver and is said to bring about relief within a day. Other practices include the application of pastes of specific plants onto the forehead of divers to relieve inflammation of the sinuses. In the early decades of the 20th century, Japanese colonial research interests led to several studies on the techniques, social life and the physiology of breath-hold divers from South Korea and Japan. However, it is not known if scientists in British India studied the physiology of breath-hold divers either in the Palk Bay, the Gulf of Mannar or even in the Persian Gulf. There have been no systematic studies of fishing communities of the Palk Bay on the physiological adaptations or the pathophysiology associated with breath-hold diving.
    Divers in the Palk Bay, unlike their counterparts in the waters off Thoothukudi in the Gulf of Mannar, do not use ropes and stones or weights to help them descend because it is never too deep. However, they do carry on board spears and hooks, which they use to catch fish, lobsters, octopuses, and so on. The boats used in both waters also differ substantially, with those in Thoothukudi now using large in-board-engine-powered vallams, while in the Palk Bay the boats are smaller and with outboard engines. Clearly, contemporary practices of freediving in the Palk Bay have been shaped by regional histories of pearl and chank fisheries, including changes in ownership and organisation of these fisheries. Besides, of course, transnational changes in fisheries technologies, technological innovations in diving practices and mechanised fishing technologies such as bottom trawling. Ironically, while these social and technological changes brought relative ease for the diver both underwater and on land in some ways, they also introduced greater hardship and uncertainty with the overall changes in the ecosystem. By the 1960s pearl fisheries disappeared altogether, and today chank and many large fish from this region are less visible to these traditional hunters of the sea.
    At Karangadu in Ramanathapuram district, with mangroves in the background, where the divers put out to sea. Photo: Umeed Mistry
    Breath-hold divers in the Palk Bay live modest lives, often hidden and forgotten in the excitement and privilege emblematic of recreational diving. Freediving also attracts individuals to use diving as a form of self-awareness and improvement since it forces divers to confront and attempt to transcend their physical and mental limitations.
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