By Uma Mani
“Jump! Jump! Come on, jump, Uma!” yelled my dive master. The year was 2014. I was standing at the edge of a diving board facing the sea in the Maldives. I was 49 years old and was training to become a certified scuba diver, geared up with an air cylinder, wearing a wetsuit, four kilos of lead weight around my waist, a mask, and a pair of flippers.
Despite my enthusiasm to learn, I was apprehensive about diving into the sea. This was my first open-water dive I had to undertake in order to earn my PADI certification.
And, then, I dived. It was my passion to see the coral reefs and I finally did.
I lived near the sea in the Maldives for 12 years, where my husband worked for the Ministry of Health. When I was 45 years old, I decided to paint on the theme of coral reefs after watching a documentary on this subject by researcher Dr Pascale Chabanet.
One day, someone mocked me, saying I painted coral reefs but I had never learnt to dive and look at them closely myself. This triggered my desire to learn how to dive.
Taking on this idea very seriously, I expressed my dream to a close friend of mine, Dr Aamaal Ali, who promptly fixed up a meeting with a super-diver of the Maldives, Shaheena. She asked me, “Do you know to swim, Uma? You need to learn swimming before you take diving lessons.”
Soon, I learnt swimming and practised every day in the artificial beach area in Male city. Then came the diving lessons and there was no looking back. I had to literally come out of my comfort zone, right from buying the swimming kit, diving gear, and so on.
The first dive blew my mind away; I was so overwhelmed to see coral reefs for real. And I started enjoying and looking forward to more dives.
Since then, I have dived at Banana Reef, Shark Point and Hulhumale in Mauritius; in Nilaveli and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka; and in Thoothukudi, Ramanathapuram, and Rameswaram in India.
I carry beautiful memories of marine life captured with each dive. They inspire me to paint once I am back on land. One such experience was when I visited the Vabbinfaru Lotus, a unique reef restoration project developed under the supervision of architect Professor Wolf Hilbertz, coral scientist Dr Tom Goreau and Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem, the marine environmental consultant to Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, a luxury resort in Maldives.
I had heard a lot about this Vabbinfaru Lotus, a lotus-like structure made of steel constructed near the reef under water. It’s a massive underwater coral nursery and the work of passionate marine scientists. Professor Steve Newman invited me to the Marine Center at Vabbinfaru island.
I was awestruck after seeing this stunning nursery, and I felt positively blessed when I saw a black-tipped whale glide into the thalamus of the lotus structure. This coral reef with numerous damsel fishes reminded me of a tree full of butterflies and, once on land, I painted that scene on a stretched canvas.
I usually take my GoPro camera with me when I dive, though it is difficult to handle it along with my diving gear, while also looking at the air gauge to check air, handling the water pressure, equalising at regular intervals to avoid ear pain and so on.
Most of the time, my dive buddies help me with my camera. There are plenty of underwater stories behind my paintings, all inspired by my dives.
During some of my dives, I saw coral reefs destroyed by irresponsible waste disposal, untreated sewage, oil spills, and toxic chemicals dumped into the sea. Over-fishing is another cause for damage.
My interest in the coral reefs slowly turned into a deep concern for the corals. This led me to ask documentary filmmaker Priya Thuvassery, “Why don’t you make a film on coral reefs?”
After several hiccups, Priya made the documentary – in which she featured me, the reefs, and the damage that humans are causing to marine life – and named it Coral Woman (2019). The unexpected title was given to document my journey from a painter to a diver. It won four awards and was screened at over 50 film festivals worldwide.
Before the film was completed, I had held six solo painting exhibitions called ‘Coral Reef Gardens’ in the Maldives. After the documentary’s release, I got the opportunity to hold two more exhibitions along with the film screening in India. Later, I showcased two solo painting exhibitions in New Delhi on my own, as well.
I still paint almost every day. It helps me practise and feel connected to the coral reefs during the pandemic, when diving is a no-no! Coral reefs are homes for a multitude of ocean creatures, fish and micro-organisms. If you like your seafood, please dispose your waste responsibly, save rainwater and go solar. I am doing my bit.
Uma Mani is a Tamil Nadu-based homemaker and artist specialising in paintings of coral reefs. You can find her on LinkedIn.