Mermaid of Churna Island tells the story of Pakistan’s only female scuba-diving instructor

Mermaid of Churna Island, a 20-minute documentary by visual artist Nameera Ahmed highlighting the journey of Pakistan’s first and only female scuba-diving instructor Rosheen Khan, served as an eye-opener to the environmental degradation of the country’s coastal waters.

The documentary was screened at the British Council Library on Saturday evening.

Some 10 years ago, Rosheen was just a teenager assisting in routine office work at the Karachi Scuba Diving Centre when, after watching so many of their clients scuba-diving along with her boss and first instructor Yousuf Ali, she requested him to also teach her how to do it.

“He at first wanted to know if I am sure I wanted to do it,” said Rosheen during a discussion with the audience after the screening of the film. “I didn’t even know how to swim then. But after giving me some basic training, he took me 60 feet down. It was an amazing experience for me. I didn’t want to come back up,” she said, adding that after that initial time she learned how to swim to be able to learn proper scuba-diving.

“Sadly as more and more tourists head for Churna Island now, I also find trash there. When I dive I also collect the trash from underwater to bring up and dispose off properly.”

Later, after getting her certifications and licence to teach scuba-diving to others, Rosheen was facing bigger challenges. No one wanted to learn from her because she was a woman and they didn’t feel confident enough to dive with her. Her family, too, objected to her working with men as there are far more men than women involved in the activity.

“I explained to my family that when suited up to dive with all that equipment it is even difficult to tell me apart from the males. Then it is just some divers blowing bubbles underwater but they were not so understanding. I had to leave my home for my love of scuba-diving,” shared Rosheen, who now also teaches scuba-diving internationally.

Filmmaker Nameera Ahmed said that through the film she hoped to dispel stereotypes in Pakistan. Though she didn’t think about making Rosheen the subject of her documentary right away when she was her student, the idea came to her after two or three years of diving with her. “She inspired me,” she said. “It was also when I started taking the camera in the water for underwater photography. “I collected some 13 months of footage, which I edited later on,” she shared.

Shot both underwater and above ground, Mermaid of Churna Island also sheds light on why the scuba-divers in Pakistan go to the Balochistan coast for diving. “It is because the Karachi coast has been ruined due to pollution,” said Rosheen. “It is completely destroyed, along with the marine life there, thanks to the dumping of sewerage directly into the ocean,” she added.

Rosheen Khan with filmmaker Nameera Ahmed at the British Council library screening of 'Mermaid of Churna Island' — Photo by author

“I don’t know what are environmental agencies are doing when all this is going on. Apart from the sewerage, people throw food boxes and wrappers into the water, too.

“Sadly as more and more tourists head for Churna Island now, I also find trash there. When I dive I also collect the trash from underwater to bring up and dispose off properly. We also educate our boatmen to not throw any trash such as ghutka or pan wrappers into the sea as the fish mistake it for food and die as a result of swallowing all this,” Rosheen said.

“And this is not all. The oil jetty near Churna is also a huge threat to marine life in the coral reefs there. This pristine area, too, will be turned into black waters as the oil is always leaking from the work at the jetty,” she said.

Having enjoyed niche audiences while being screened at Turkish and American universities and colleges, international film festivals and culture centres, the documentary was part of the British Council Library Karachi’s ongoing ‘Unique You’ campaign for the month of May highlighting trailblazers and passionate individuals who have forged their own fearless path.

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