Aneesha Ani Benedict, a marine biologist from Valiyathura, has been exploring the seabed off the coast of Thiruvananthapuram for the last three years. On Sundays, 26-year-old Aneesha, a data analyst with Kerala State Biodiversity Board, who also happens to be an advanced-level scuba diver, maps the seabed, along with members of Friends of Marine Life (FML), a voluntary organisation that has been at the forefront of marine studies and research on the coastal ecosystem.
Most of the volunteers happen to be residents of the coastal belt and the regulars in the diving team include Robert Panipilla, 58-year-old founder of the group, and Arun Alosius, vice principal (VHSE), Government Regional Fisheries Technical High School in Valiyathura.
Robert had envisaged the organisation as a “platform to study and document the indigenous and local knowledge” of the fishing community. “FML is the sister organisation of Sister Rose Memorial Education Resource Centre (SRMERC) at Valiyathura, which was started by a team of like-minded people to give academic support to students from the local community. The first step towards forming it was creating awareness among the people in my community itself. So I got several fishermen on board. Then we encouraged those students who studied at SRMERC to be part of FML’s initiatives,” he says.
Robert avers that even many of those living close to the sea are ignorant about its ecosystem and the indigenous knowledge that the fishing community has about the seabed, the timing and pattern of winds, the reefs, breeding ground of various fish varieties and the like. “Traditional fishermen, who use the hook-and-line method for fishing, are a treasure house of information,” he adds.
Understanding the sea
Aneesha, the first one from her community to become a marine biologist and a diver, agrees. “I was appalled that I knew so little about the seabed. Thanks to FML, I was inspired to do my post graduation in marine biology from Pondicherry University on its campus at Andaman and Nicobar. I learnt scuba diving there when I developed an interest in the marine ecosystem. By that time FML had formed its scuba diving team with members from the coastal community,” says Aneesha. FML has an eight-member scuba diving team that go on expeditions with the support of Scuba Cochin.
With over 30 registered members on its rolls and several unregistered members, most of whom are involved in cleaning drives and ocean literacy programmes, which include exhibitions, producing documentaries and short films and study tours, this group works hard to be true friends of the ocean. David Mathew, an undergraduate student of Government Arts College and a volunteer for four years, says that the organisation exposed him to the diversity of marine life. “It has been a learning platform for me to explore my neighbourhood,” says David, a native of Valiyathope.
Sachin Satheeshan, Roshan J and Jaison Rozario are some of the student volunteers who are also involved in making eco-friendly cloth banners.
Anjana Krisant, a BEd student and another volunteer, talks about the cleaning drives of FML. The team was in the news for rescuing a turtle that got caught in a piece of cloth during the estuary clean-up at Veli.
It was an exhibition organised by FML at his school that brought Arun on board FML. Having undergone advanced level training in scuba diving in Goa and Singapore, he came into FML with the experience of having worked in an oceanarium in Singapore. “We bank on traditional knowledge of the fishing community and there is so much to be studied and understood about our seas through them,” says Arun. He was in the team that recently located a sunken Iranian vessel off the coast at Poonthura. Moreover, some of his students are also part of FML. Like, Kiran Denson and Sachin Hamlet, who are now trained scuba divers. While Kiran is studying biotechnology, Sachin wants to learn underwater welding, Arun adds.
The mainstay of FML has been those fishermen who make a living from the sea, not necessarily by traditional fishing. One of them is Mohammed Sadik, a mussel catcher and a trained scuba diver. “I have been a free diver for over 10 years as part of my job. But I didn’t know that there are so many beautiful fish in the waters of my coast until I learnt scuba diving! One activity that I am extremely proud about associating with is the removal of ghost nets, that are nets left abandoned on the seabed, which pose a serious threat to marine animals. I have been able to save several fish that got entangled in those nets,” says Sadik, now undergoing training as a coastal warden. The divers removed 400 kg of ghost nets from the coast off Vizhinjam last year.
Sadik adds that he now knows the extent to which our seas are polluted. “The seabed is choked with waste of all kinds. That was a lesson for me as well since I no longer throw plastic bottles into the sea!” he adds.
The volunteers are proud that FML is going places, having represented India at the Ocean Conference held in New York in 2017 and is now a member of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “When I started it, I never expected it to go this far and I am not anxious about its future. I hope the new generation will take it forward,” sums up Robert.