By Sophie Gotthardt
Two girls are sitting in the cushioned car seats between compressor, tanks, and other dive equipment aboard our self-proclaimed dive boat. A former fishing boat, the wooden vessel offers just enough space for our team to travel around the Mergui Archipelago, where we conduct our survey and cleanup missions. The boat has quite a big roof, perfect for storing our daily catch: discarded fishing nets.
Today is not about retrieving ghost nets from the ocean though. We’re taking two girls from the village on their very first scuba dive. After holding a presentation about our project, Thanda asked the group if anyone would be interested in experiencing their home reef from a whole different perspective - as a diver. At first, no one dared to volunteer. A few girls exchanged shy looks and giggled. “We’ll give it some time”, Thanda said. “I’m pretty sure at least one of the girls will try it.”
The next day, Thanda entered the kitchen while the 17-year old Htar Htar Linn, a half Moken half Myanmar girl, was cooking. “Would you like to try scuba diving?”, Thanda asked straightforward. She replied with a hesitant smile: “Yes, I'd like to. Can I bring my friend?”
Fast forward to the next morning and the two girls are sitting here with us, trying on the dive equipment for the first time. Every time I catch a glimpse of one of the girls they smile and start giggling. They don’t speak English, so Thanda is translating everything I say.
The boat engine stops. We’ve arrived at the other side of the island and are parked in safe distance from the shallow coral gardens in front of the Moken village. Htar Htar Linn and her friend Kin Lah, another Moken girl, laugh and say something in the Moken language that even Thanda can’t understand.
The Moken, often referred to as sea gypsies, are a group of about 3000 semi-nomadic people who live and work around the 800 islands of the Mergui Archipelago. They spend the majority of their lives out at sea. Over the generations, they have collected a tremendous knowledge about the ocean that helps them to live in harmony with nature. Dependent upon the sea for their survival, overfishing, pollution, and climate change heavily affect their lifestyle. Today, many of them live in villages and instead of selling fish to consumers directly, they end up selling to bigger fishing fleets that export much of the catch to Thailand.
After a detailed briefing about the gear and underwater safety, we get everyone’s equipment ready and jump into the crystal clear water. Both girls are confident in the water. It’s easy to see they grew up surrounded by the ocean. Two little boys, no older than six, paddle by in their tiny nutshell. They point at us and laugh. This is probably the first time they’ve seen divers. We must look quite silly to them in all our gear.
Moken people have fascinated researchers from all around the globe. Like the Sama-Bajau nomads from the southern Philippines, who can hold their breath for up to thirteen minutes, Moken are believed to have genetically adapted to life at sea. A study revealed that they can see twice as clear underwater due to a reflex that closes their pupils when diving down instead of opening it.
Until now, Htar Htar Linn and Kin Lah have only been freediving. They can hold their breath for a very long time. For scuba diving, however, it is very important not to hold your breath and continue breathing in and out at all times. I’m watching the two teenagers take their very first breaths underwater. They look a bit spooked and excited at the same time. A few breaths later, the girls feel more confident and we are ready to go deeper.
Thanda and I split the girls in between us so we can both look after them one-on-one. I’m with Htar Htar Linn, who swims remarkably fast and quickly wants to take the lead. I’m holding onto her tank to make sure she doesn’t slip away while we explore the reef.
We’re only at about 3.5 meters of depth and surrounded by stunning, healthy coral. I point out three different types of branching Acropora coral just next to a massive Poritidae bommie. Considering the size of these coral bommies, they must be at least a hundred years old. I also spot my favorite coral, the Euphyllidae - or bubble coral - named after their grape-sized blobs. In the deeper end of the reef, we see many different sized Fungiidae, the mushroom coral, covering the sandy bottom. I’ve dived many different sites around the world, but I’ve never seen this species grow this big!
About forty minutes later we make our way back to the boat. The girls are still pumped with adrenaline discussing their new experience with each other and laughing. Shortly thereafter they get picked up by a boat that takes them back to the village. They joke around with the boat boy. Without a doubt, they have something over all the boys in the village now!
While we’re headed to the next site for a survey dive, I’m day-dreaming about the first two Myanmar-Moken girls becoming certified divers and exploring the beautiful coral gardens of the Mergui Archipelago.
Maybe on our next visit!
Sophie is a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor who has been working in coral conservation, manta ray research, and marine data collection across Southeast Asia with reputable organizations such as LAMAVE and TRACC. She is currently pursuing her degree in Marine Biology in Berlin, Germany.