A dive to remember: How India’s Coral Woman Uma Mani turned ocean crusader at 49

Meet Uma Mani, India’s Coral Woman, who learnt diving at the age of 49 and now talks about coral reef preservation through her art.

When she was a little girl, Uma Mani loved to draw and paint. But her grandparents told her to stop wasting time, paper and coloured pencils. She was asked to focus on studying and getting married. At the age of 49, when she resolved to learn swimming and diving, relatives commented, โ€œItโ€™s your age to become a grandmother.โ€ But this time, she decided to take the plunge โ€“ both literally and figuratively. At 59 today, Uma Mani has earned the epithet of Indiaโ€™s โ€˜Coral Womanโ€™, who fuses her passion for art and concern about coral reefs to spread awareness on the need for ocean conservation.

Her childlike enthusiasm is intact and infectious. โ€œDonโ€™t call me maโ€™am. I am younger to you! I was reborn at 45, so I am just 14 years old, to be honest,โ€ quips Uma Mani in a Health Shots conversation from Dindigul in Tamil Nadu.

She is light-hearted in nature. But carries a heavy mission in her heart. โ€œThe ocean is literally an ocean. We need many hands and brains to save the ocean from the trauma that humans are putting it through every day,โ€ she says, concerned about the state of coral reefs, marine life and climate change.

Life as a happy housewife

Before re-exploring her love for drawing and painting at the age of 45, Uma Mani was a โ€œhappy housewifeโ€. She used to cook, wash, clean, visit the vegetable market, talk to people and sometimes, she would give yoga lessons or English tuitions. But once she started painting again, life changed.

As a child, Uma Mani used to draw gardens, plants and flowers. From the green environs of Chennai in India, she shifted her base to the azure blue waters of Maldives with her husband when she was 39. The water intrigued her, but swimming wasnโ€™t her forte. She continued to paint flowers and decided to do a rose-themed series of paintings, until one day when she chanced upon a documentary on coral reefs. She began drawing coral reefs.

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โ€œFor four 4 years, I was exhibiting these paintings without seeing the corals for real. During an exhibition in 2014, someone told me, โ€˜You should see the coral reef underwater and then paint. I felt it was high time for me to learn swimming and diving.โ€

That became the turning point. Undeterred by relentless ranting by relatives about ageism and sexism, Uma Mani had decided to break the bias.

Uma Mani Coral Woman of India
Uma Mani listened to her heart instead of listening to others. Image courtesy: Uma Mani

Uma Mani shares her starting point as a diver

In Maldives, she went to sign up for a diving course. But she was asked to first learn swimming to navigate any emergency underwater with ease. She had to visit Chennai, where she learnt how to swim. โ€œMy folks thought I was crazy. They would say, โ€˜At this age, you are to become a grandmother. Donโ€™t go and break your legs! All elderly ladies in Chennai would say โ€˜Why do you want to do this?โ€™ I said, โ€˜I just want toโ€™. They had many questions, of course. But I didnโ€™t answer any of them,โ€ recounts Uma.

Now after almost a decade since her first dive, she heartily laughs about the first time her diving coach told her to โ€œJumpโ€. She was at the edge of the boat and she just couldnโ€™t jump, until she convinced herself: โ€œI have come this farโ€ฆ I have to jump.โ€

That debut dive left a lasting impression on her mind. Mesmerised by the dynamism, colours and magnificence of the coral reefs, she began questioning herself, โ€œWhy did I deny myself this beautiful experience earlier?โ€ Today, the mother of a 32-year-old son is grateful for her resolve and her husband and sonโ€™s support. โ€œIt also gave me a sense of feeling that I did itโ€ฆ that I took the risk,โ€ she says, now asserting that โ€œdiving is easier than walkingโ€.

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The journey to become Coral Woman

She has since dived underwater at least 25 times, each time driven by the passion to talk more about coral reef preservation through her art. Uma maintains a dive log in which she writes details about the location, duration and the experience of every dive. In 2018, her life story inspired a documentary titled โ€˜Coral Womanโ€™. Filmmaker Priya Thuvassery found merit in the narrative of an inspiring homemaker who fell in love with corals and began drawing public attention to the devastating effects of climate change on marine life and coastal communities through her art.

Uma Maniโ€™s continued efforts have also led her to be recognised as โ€˜Earth Championโ€™ by Sony BBC Earth.

Looking back, she says, โ€œThis journey has taken its own flow. I had simply started painting and diving. But only when I realised the problem of coral reefs underwater and ocean pollution โ€“ did I start thinking differently. My perspective from a happy coral reef to a sad coral reef started disturbing me. Now I talk to people during exhibitions, at colleges and organisation, about how the oceans are suffering due to the carbon footprints we are leaving, the garbage and plastic consumption. This catastrophe is playing a very important role in climate change and every person should be aware about their responsibility to protect.โ€

Uma Mani painting
Uma Mani believes in the power of art to spread a message. Image courtesy: Uma Mani

Uma Mani on her fitness mantra

As for how she keeps up with the physical agility to dive at almost 60, she says it just like celebrities do: โ€œStaying active is my fitness mantra.โ€ Truth be told, she reveals that she only does what women mostly did in the past โ€“ lots of housework. She has no dependence on domestic help or a personal vehicle. She takes public transport, makes sure she walks to the temple every day and is on her toes thanks to her four loving dogs.

โ€œI do realise that suddenly if I want to go to dive, it is not possible to carry 20 kg on my back! I have to work on my body every day. I exercise, do yoga, walk and stay positive. I am careful about the food I eat and I sleep by 9 p.m. My husband always says, โ€˜Itโ€™s your choice to live your life wellโ€™. So I just made my choices right.โ€

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