Livelihood Issues

Amphibious lives

Print edition : March 02, 2018

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.

FISHING in marine waters—seas and oceans—demands traversing large expanses of open waters, which is possible only if fishers spend a considerable length of time on fishing vessels using a range of tools. Today, they include a variety of nets, pulleys, winches, ropes and electrical, digital and mechanical instruments. Fishers work with these tools to wrestle with the affordances and constraints of a realm that constantly tests the endurance of humans as a terrestrial species. Many bodily reactions remind fishers of the physical limitations they face out at sea on a constantly bobbing vessel. They have to combat seasickness; long hours of exposure to a combination of heat, cold, wind, salt spray and blinding light from the reflection of the sun on water; and the less-understood experience of mal de debarquement, or “sea legs”, the feeling of unsteadiness upon return to land. Great fiction such as The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway or The Pearl by John Steinbeck are excellent portrayals of the cognitive, emotional, and social trials of a life spent in fisheries, the former outlining a struggle on board and the latter tracing the (mis)fortunes of a pearl diver both underwater and on shore.

The human body is brought one step closer to an amphibious state in fishing practices such as breath-hold diving. Fishing by diving has been practised for thousands of years and is still prevalent in many parts of the world. Diving itself has undergone many changes to enable humans to spend long hours underwater and has incorporated equipment such as masks, fins, diving apparel, and scuba-related devices such as regulators, rebreathers, compressed air tanks or access to an above-water air source such as those used in diving bells and “hookah diving” (where long hoses connect a mouthpiece to a compressor on board).

Fishing by simple breath-hold diving, on the other hand, retains, in this contest, the principle limitation of humans as air-breathing terrestrial species and is one of the closest ways in which the human body can expose itself intimately to the vagaries of becoming amphibious.

Freediving in its longer version of breath-hold diving is popular across the world today as an elite sport in which highly fit individuals compete with themselves and/or others to achieve greater limits of depth, technique and experience. Its elite status is partly derived from its practitioners and their purpose—often relatively well-off individuals who dive as a form of competitive recreation even though it can result in economic benefits (through awards, celebrity and exclusivity-related social capital). Freediving also attracts many 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.

Contrasted with such diving, the breath-hold diving practised by hundreds of fishers across the world is not quite as glamorous and is akin to an image of labour rather than that of leisure. But is labour all that one can discern from such fishing practices? Does the social status of these divers and their livelihood compulsions obscure their skills, experience and innovation?

This photo essay is a vignette of the economic, cultural and cognitive world of breath-hold divers from the Palk Bay in India; amphibious lives often hidden and forgotten in the excitement and privilege emblematic of recreational diving or the growing techno-capital dependency of comparatively disembodied fishing. (Detailed captions given below.)

The Palk Bay, abutting south coastal Tamil Nadu in India, is a shallow region where the depth exceeds 15 metres only in some areas. This geomorphologic feature of 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. While breath-hold diving for pearl oysters ( Pinctada fucata) and the sacred chank ( Turbinella pyrum) has been practised for hundreds of years along the coasts of present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu, today this practice is restricted to the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Tamil Nadu.

In the Palk Bay, all the action is largely in the coastal belt of Ramanathapuram district, where fishing by diving is practised mainly by men belonging to the Kadaiyar and Paravar castes. It is most actively seen today in the villages of Karangad, Devipattinam and Olaikuda, where fishers dive to collect molluscs such as the sacred chank and ornamental molluscs, but also to spear fish, lay traps and opportunistically collect other marine creatures. The active and open fisheries for sea cucumbers was curtailed by a ban imposed in 2002 by the then Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on the basis of concerns about their depletion. This ban continues to be opposed by a number of fishers who are unconvinced by the depletion argument. They took out a protest in early 2017 at Devipattinam, arguing that the ban was unjustified and that it had driven the business underground.

Few scientific studies have been done on the social world of fishers along this coast and fewer still have focussed on the relations between the people of this coastline and the marine creatures and environments they engage with. Travelling along this coastline in 2015 and 2016 while researching for a documentary film on the diversity of fishing practices among small-scale fishers in the Palk Bay, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to encounter the world of divers in this region. Focussing on the historical village of Karangad, we followed the Pattangatti Kadaiyar families who continue to dive seasonally for the sacred chank. We filmed on a tight schedule and a tighter budget, but witnessed the ingenuity of small-scale fishers. The documentary, Fishing Palk Bay, is available on YouTube. Some historical accounts trace the historicity of the parish of Karangad to the early 1600s, but these church-related records provide few accounts of its members’ amphibious world. For this, one must not just be in Karangad and follow its village life, but also find the means to follow the divers in the water.

Divers from these villages occupy two distinct realms at all times, one terrestrial and the other marine. This amphibiousness is visible not just from the embodied effects of being underwater such as in dietary practices or medicinal treatments derived from terrestrial plants and their use in combating barotrauma, but also in cultural artefacts that ease being underwater. The artefacts crafted and redesigned to suit breath-hold diving in this region reflect not just the demands of this shallow sea’s influence but also the material transactions and economic opportunities and limitations of the world on shore. The images presented with this article provide a peek into a complex and less-understood life.

Aarthi Sridhar is Trustee and Programme Head, Dakshin Foundation and doctoral candidate at the University of Amsterdam. Umeed Mistry is an award-winning photographer and Staff Instructor of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.

(To see a fuller collection of photo essays on marine life in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, write to aarthi77@gmail.com for a copy of the book Knowing the Palk Bay produced with support from the Coastal and Marine Protected Areas (CMPA) project of GiZ India.)

Captions

Picture 1: 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.

Picture 2: 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.

Picture 3: 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.

Picture 4: 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.

Picture 5: 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.

Picture 6: 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.

Picture 7: 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.

Picture 8: 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.

Picture 9: At Karangadu in Ramanathapuram district, with mangroves in the background, where the divers put out to sea.

Picture 10: 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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