‘I didn’t expect it, but it’s endearing. I definitely don’t see myself as a mermaid… maybe more as a turtle.’
So begins my conversation with Ehdaa Al Barwani, the first and only female PADI instructor from Oman. Modest about all the attention she has received in recent times, she earned the nickname ‘mermaid’ after diving in traditional Omani attire to showcase the symbiotic relationship between her heritage and ocean health. It’s almost as if her evolution from Ehdaa to Ariel was destined.
The self-professed water baby spent her childhood in the coastal city of Muscat, swimming further and further out during every trip to the beach. ‘I’m an only child, so I’d test the limits of what I’m capable of,’ she admits. One swim took a dramatic turn with Ehdaa having to guide a cousin back to shore. ‘She was nervous, and kept grabbing onto my head and pushing me down,’ she recalls. ‘I distinctly remember wondering if I’d survive. That’s when I took a moment to gather myself. I don’t know how, but I managed to calm down my cousin and swim back to shore with her.’ We’d be remiss not to mention that she was only nine at the time.
Today, the 30-something attributes her comfort in water to something we could all do if we tried. ‘We were practically created out of water [in the womb] which is why panic sets in [about swimming] much later in life. Babies are actually quite comfortable in water, so early exposure to water is a must,’ she asserts.
The majority of her students, however, don’t know how to swim and fear the water but are eager to give scuba diving a try – and are greeted with nothing but encouragement at Ehdaa’s dive centre Aura Divers.
Interestingly, women make better scuba divers than men – they’re at an advantage, according to marine scientist Mandy Shackleton. Her three-year study at the University of Hull concluded that women are not only calmer and more safety-conscious than their ‘sensation-seeking’ male counterparts, but also more aware of their immediate surroundings.
Aura Divers debuted back in 2019 with the aim of empowering more women to dive, and remains the only female-owned scuba diving centre in Oman. As for how she feels about the ‘female entrepreneur’ label? ‘In my case, terms like ‘female diver’ or ‘female entrepreneur’ help create a community, a safe space for women who are interested in diving, but uncomfortable doing so around men,’ Ehdaa says. ‘I understand women who’d rather keep gender out of their accomplishments but here – where it takes courage for women to move away from their set roles in society – it’s essential.’ Unsolicited opinions, naturally, have made an appearance.
‘We’re still governed by our traditions, so there has been backlash in the sense that I’m quite liberal, which some men aren’t used to. They’ll often tell me how to run my business – I think they call that mansplaining,’ she laughs. ‘But I choose not to acknowledge it. I’m picking my battles.’
And while tackling gender bias isn’t high on Ehdaa’s agenda, ocean health is. Aura Divers injects each underwater adventure with an element of education, encouraging its divers to collect marine debris such as straws and plastic lids. ‘My long-term goal is to focus on conservation. Oman has a way to go when it comes to spreading awareness, but I hope that 10 or 15 years from now, enough people come to my dive centre for both diving and knowledge on marine ecosystems.’
Also noteworthy is that Ehdaa credits the PADI System of diver education for her approach. ‘PADI is very focused on sustainable diving. Its global movement Project AWARE is rooted in teaching students about ocean protection, and I’ve incorporated this into my teaching because everything my divemaster taught me was about minimising environmental impact – swimming with your hands close to your body so you don’t hit anything, ensuring that your fins are nice and high so you don’t damage coral reefs.
Talk of sustainability inevitably leads to a discussion around a deeply disturbing prediction, particularly as it is World Ocean Day: an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report warns that plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. ‘That tells us exactly where we’re going,’ Ehdaa sighs. ‘When I address conservation, I don’t mean a complete absence of plastic. We’re so far down this path and every other thing we use is made of plastic, but what we can do is minimise the damage.’
Quick to point out that there’s more to playing your part than picking litter off a seabed, the ocean activist’s advice is closely tied to this year’s Conservation Action Focus to protect at least 30 per cent of our planet by 2030. ‘It’s the small, everyday actions that add up,’ she says. ‘Volunteer for beach clean-up sessions and monitor how much single-use plastic you consume. Also, be mindful of where you dispose of your rubbish and opt only for reef-safe sunblock. Here in Muscat, we use cars to go the shortest of distances, so maybe cycle to the corner store. The key is to understand the cause we’re fighting for, so do your research. There’s this idea that Oman has a small population, so our actions don’t make an impact. But that’s just not true – every bit helps.’
There’s a sense of urgency in Ehdaa’s message, and it carries the same passion with which she compares whale sharks – incidentally the size of school buses – to puppies. ‘They’re big and daunting, but they’re curious and they love bubbles. You know those little bubbles caused by your regulator? They’ll wonder what those are and, as long as you don’t touch them, they’ll swim above to let the bubbles tickle their bellies. But they’re massive!’ she exclaims, her face lighting up at the mere thought of these gentle giants. Now that’s endearing.