At 10, India's youngest certified diver is expert at cleaning up our seas

Thaaragai Aarathana is India's youngest PADI-certified diver, who advocates for beach and underwater clean-ups and marine life protection

Thaaragai Aarathana (courtesy: Arun Tharunsri)
Thaaragai Aarathana (courtesy: Arun Tharunsri)

Akanksha Biradar

In Tamil, there is very little difference between the words for love and sea. While கடல் (kaṭal) means sea and காதல் (kātal) means love, for 10-year-old Thaaragai Aarathana, they are the same. 

India's youngest PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors)-certified diver, Arathana is a Chennai-based environmental activist who advocates for beach and underwater clean-ups and marine life protection. On 3 April, Aarathana, her father S.B. Aravind Tharunsri, and Nishvik (a seven-year-old fellow volunteer) swam from Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka to Dhanushkodi in India to spread awareness about marine plastic pollution.

Aarathana has always been inspired by her father, a professional scuba diver and environmental activist who conducts seminars and educational sessions with residents, scuba divers, fisherfolk and social workers. 

Tharunsri’s first dive with a naval officer friend in 1997 in the Andamans changed his life as he fell in love with the ocean and marine life, and decided to take up scuba diving professionally, with strong support from his parents. “Back then, no one knew what diving was. But my father was very supportive. He encouraged me,” Tharunsri said. 

Though the father-daughter duo began diving together when she was just five, Tharunsri recalled how he dipped his daughter in water on the third day after she was born. “I put her in the water three days after she was born, she was floating in water by nine months — you must have seen videos of foreigners teaching babies how to swim? I only corrected her form, by two-and-a-half years, she was swimming.” 

Among other feats, Aarathana has swum for 11 hours 30 minutes as part of a ‘Save the Ocean’ initiative. Till date, she has picked up over 1,200 kg of plastic on her beach and underwater clean-up drives. Her favourite school subject is sports. And there are no prizes for guessing her favourite sport.

Hair plaited in two pigtails and in a cute floral frock, this schoolgirl has headed over 70 community talks encouraging both young and old to collaborate with her mission of marine conservation.  

Alongside his daughter, Tharunsri has collected over 30,000 kg of plastic from the ocean. Studies estimate there are now 15-51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans. At current rates, plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the seas by 2050. Endangered marine species such as Hawaiian monk seals and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are among nearly 700 species that eat and get caught in plastic litter.

“It affects all. Sometimes, the fishermen pick up only plastic, not fish,” Tharunsri said. Though the government has not supported any of their initiatives; he aspires to work on several projects such as artificial coral reef plantation and teaching fisherfolk how to dive. 

Studies have shown that 33.6 per cent of the Indian coastline is now vulnerable to erosion, 26.9 per cent was under accretion (growing) and 39.6 per cent was in a stable state. Kerala's State Action Plan on Climate Change 2023-2030 has warned that "Kerala, being a coastal State, is at risk of sea level rise and its coastline is susceptible to large-scale sea erosion, losing over 40% of its coastline to the sea over the past 26 years due to sea level rise".

“We can’t be against Nature,” as Tharunsri said. Arathana hasn’t "figured it out" yet, but said she wants to work towards stopping plastic production. She said her appa (father) teaches about marine life and she welcomes all youngsters to clean the oceans with her. In fact, Arathana already leads a road and beach clean-up every Sunday since "educating the next generation is the solution". 

“I have to engage with my daughter first,” said Tharunshri. "We must educate youngsters to keep our oceans clean." To which Arathana said, “I have a request for you, please ask for a cloth bag instead of a plastic one. And always clean your home first, then your street and then, the ocean.” 

At 10, Arathana is certainly living the maxim: be the change you want to see in this world.

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