From Homemaker to Scuba Diver: Uma Mani’s Journey to Protect Coral Reefs – Times Now

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Uma Mani

From Homemaker to Scuba Diver: Uma Mani’s Journey to Protect Coral Reefs

A 49-year-old homemaker, Uma Mani, clad in a wetsuit, flippers, a diving mask, and carrying roughly 20 kg of additional gear, stood ready to embark on her inaugural dive into the ocean depths of the Maldives. Today, the homemaker turned scuba diver with the aim to raise awareness about marine pollution and protect coral reefs.

“I was standing at the edge of the diving board and when I looked at the vast sea, I got scared. My scuba diver yelled at me to jump. But I refused,” she recalls in a conversation with The Better India.

“It was like taking a big step into the water before going deep inside it with the pressure. Initially, this process looked a little messy to me. I doubted myself, but then I closed my eyes and remembered that it was my first and the last opportunity. If I quit now, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life,” she adds.

She took the decision of becoming certified scuba diving a year before turning 50 and science than she never looked back. “When I dived, I finally saw the coral reefs for the first time. My age never came into my mind,” she said.

Born into a conservative family in Chennai, Uma didn’t have many aspirations. After pursuing higher studies in literature from Madras University, she got married and moved to the Maldives in 2004, where her husband worked as a doctor.

“I was always interested in painting since childhood but I never got a chance to learn art professionally. I was not introduced to an atmosphere that fosters professional growth or conversation for women. So, I got married and focussed on being a good housewife,” she says.

“I was tutoring kids at home but I never did a full-time job. I travelled with my family, wherever my husband’s work took us. Although I was a happy housewife, I couldn’t help but feel that I should have focussed on my career or pursued a PhD,” adds Uma, who currently resides in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.

She was at the age of 45 when she found her interest in painting. “When I started to paint, I felt like I was reborn. Then, I saw a documentary on coral reefs which encouraged me to read more about them. I started painting them and holding exhibitions,” she shares.

While speaking about the impact of pollution on coral reefs, she was mocked by one of her cousins. “He asked me if I had seen coral reefs in real life, or how the ocean even looked underwater, or what the colour of the ocean was. Although it appears to be blue and beautiful outside, it’s full of pollution inside. This sparked my curiosity to dive deep into the water,” she adds.

However, she chose swimming to become a scuba diver. “My family supported me in this decision. The same year, my husband and I were to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. As a present, my son paid for my certification course and encouraged me to learn to dive. I advised myself to seize the opportunity as it hardly comes to anyone at this age,” she says.

As Uma dove deep, she was taken aback by the underwater beauty. “It’s a surreal world. When the water envelopes your body, you forget about the outside world and the worries. Despite carrying such heavy gear on my waist and shoulders, I felt light as a feather. It seemed the time had stopped, and before me were these beautifully coloured coral reefs. I was overwhelmed to see them for the first time,” she adds.

With time and experience, Uma’s interest in the coral reefs slowly transformed into a deep concern. “Every time I dive into the water, I see the coral reefs destroyed further by irresponsible waste disposal, oil spills, untreated sewage, and toxic chemicals that are dumped into the sea. This is very disheartening. Oceans are the biggest carbon sink helping us breathe good oxygen but we keep using them as our largest garbage bins,” she says.

As a result, coral reefs—considered one of the most significant marine ecosystems—are dying at an alarming rate. Motivated to take action, she approached documentary filmmaker Priya Thuvassery, urging her to create a film on coral reefs.

In 2019, their award-winning documentary titled “Coral Woman” was released, featuring Uma’s journey to raise awareness of the damage being caused to marine life. “In India, we do not talk about the coral reefs, so this film was an eye-opener,” she adds.

Over the years, Uma hosted several painting exhibitions across the country to generate interest in the subject. “The coral reefs in my paintings are not happy anymore. Today, I depict the walls of the ocean on my canvas and paint their sufferings. I believe art is a very powerful medium to bring about social transformation.”

It has been a decade since her first dive, but Uma continues to raise awareness about marine pollution in schools, colleges, and corporate organisations. Recently, she was named the ‘Earth Champion of the Month’ by Sony BBC Earth.

“Personally, the transformation from being a homemaker to a scuba diver has given me an immense sense of responsibility. The oceans do not have a voice. I am one of the few who could communicate the reality. My work is small and it will take an entire village to bring about a change. We do not just need to talk the talk but walk the walk as well,” she adds.

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