Today, there are fewer ‘muzhukalis’ left in the city owing to the dangers of the job, and greater demand abroad
C. Ganesan carefully straps on two circular discs on his feet and proceeds to clean his snorkelling goggles before he puts them on.
He then picks up a mouthpiece attached to a long flexible tube before perching himself on the edge of a boat, ready to dive in to clean the bottom of a large trawler anchored at Kasimedu fishing harbour.
“All this equipment is fairly new to people in our trade. Deep-sea divers or ‘muzhukalis’ have been around for several generations, but it is only now we have learnt how to use the equipment, which has changed the nature of our job. Despite this, because of the dangers involved in the job and the demand for divers abroad, there are very few of us left in the country, and fewer still in Chennai,” says Ganesan, resident of Kasimedu, who now trains technical divers.
The art of diving is passed down from generation to generation in places like Tuticorin, where divers scour the seabed for pearls and conches.
In Chennai, ‘muzhukalis’ used to dive in with nets to catch fish like pomfret. They would dive in without any sort of equipment and were trained to stay under water for long periods of time without oxygen, says Ganesan.
There are a number of dangers when it comes to skin diving and most traditional ‘muzhukalis’ end up losing their hearing. Now, the field has completely changed, and even traditional divers have begun using modern equipment. Sometimes, they use traditional scuba gear, but they also have air compressors attached to the boat that allow ‘muzhukalis’ to dive to a depth of around 40 metres.
Unfortunately, not many divers have access to proper equipment, and many of them use medical oxygen cylinders or sub-standard cylinders. This considerably increases the risks of an already-dangerous job. With this kind of diving, there is always the chance of the diver getting lost, or suffering from debilitating diseases because of increased nitrogen in the blood. Since it is dangerous, very few people opt to do this work, says Ganesan.
Now, since there are many opportunities abroad for trained technical divers, many divers from Chennai prefer to leave the country for work. Less than 15 divers remain in the city, says Nanjil Ravi of Akila Indhiya Meenavar Sangam.