The women of Bharathinagar, if they are asked, let people in on the secret to collecting seaweed from under the waves. For decades, these women from the fishing hamlet near Kilakarai in Ramanathapuram district have been diving and harvesting seaweed from the Gulf of Mannar, and have been romanticised in local lore and by tourists.

“Men don’t have the patience it takes. That’s why we are so good at it,” said R Rakkamma, 51, with a smile. Rakkamma is secretary of the Women Seaweed Harvesters’ Federation, which has more than 2,000 members from 21 villages.

“It was only from photos and videos of tourists that we realised what we are doing is indeed risky. We go through a lot to earn an average of Rs 350 per day,” added Rakkamma.

At dawn, the women, including the middle-aged and old, accompany men on boats a few nautical miles offshore. They then dive into the water, sometimes to depths of more than 25 to 30 feet, in their saris, and start collecting seaweed. They stay in the water for more than three hours on an average, and then return to the boat with their haul.

“When the weather is bad, we just walk a few metres into the sea and collect whatever is possible. We also go to nearby islands like Appatheevu, Mullitheevu and Vazhatheevu, and occasionally camp for a couple of days, plucking seaweeds off the seabed from there,” said Raniamma, 52, who has been diving since she was 10.

Though there is no concrete reason why this particular profession is dominated by women in this region, evidence suggests this prac- t i c e started a generation ago when women used to accompany their husbands while the latter went fishing. The women then began exploring the possibility of harvesting seaweed, also known as “paasi”, abundant in the gulf.

“It does not earn us much, but it is something. Holding our breath underwater for long is something we women are good at. We also don’t mind braving the chilly water during winter as we get more seaweed during this season,” Rakkamma said.

The women harvest seaweed throughout the year, dressing in a combination of sari and t-shirt, wearing rudimentary goggles, wornout gloves, a bag tied to their waist to collect seaweed. Their footwear is self-made, often unfinished.

Seaweeds have both edible and non-edible varieties. Seaweed harvested around Rameswaram are used in the food industry as an essential ingredient in several dishes, as dye fixers in the textile industry and in fertilisers. They are also increasingly used in pharmaceuticals.

The art might, however, be dying. Very few young women go diving for seaweed anymore. “It takes a toll on the body and is risky. We don’t want our daughters to live like this, so we haven’t encouraged them to follow us,” said Muthuvelu, 57, who stopped diving after a surgery last year.

“Only education will help them live a better life than we have had. The forest department’s new rules also prevent us from going out into the sea as freely as earlier, which hampers our occupation,” Muthuvelu added.

The volume of harvest has also fallen, partly after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, according to the divers. But experts dispute this. “The focus in India has been on harvesting, not on cultivation, which has led to overexploitation. Look at the Philippines: they grow and harvest seaweed. We could cultivate indigenous seaweed through shallow water farming using techniques like floating bamboo method. For this, we need to be provided with the latest technologies,” said M Rajendra Kumar, who runs R K Algae Project Centre at Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district.

Meanwhile, S Sumayaa, principal of Thassim Beevi Abdul Kader College for Women at Kilakarai, who has done several researches on seaweed, said there was very poor awareness among the general public about marine algae, its health benefits and medicinal properties and hence people should be sensitised about it.

“Edible seaweeds have many nutrients in them and if they are provided in the form of chocolates for children and other kinds of food products to people of all age groups, it could significantly aid in curbing nutritional deficiency. Gulf of Mannar is home to more than 240 seaweed varieties and there are at least 185 edible ones, but most people aren’t aware of this,” she added.

Asked how they felt on being arguably the last group of women to harvest seaweeds, the women said they were more concerned about livelihood.

“Ours isn’t a tale of empowerment. We are just trying to make ends meet,” said Rakkamma, as she awaited for the next batch of divers to return to the shore.