By Sophie Gotthard
Eight curious faces are looking at me, waiting for the briefing to start. We’re sitting in a small semicircle to prevent the roaring engine from drowning our voices.
The boat just left the sheltered bay a few hours from Dawei and we’re headed towards the tiny Moscos Islands for our first Sustainable Snorkel Guide training with local tour guides.
Myanmar boasts an extensive coastline stretching over almost 2,000 kilometers. In the past few years, the country has increasingly opened up to tourists. Now that tourism is on the rise, many Myanmar expats are returning home from neighboring countries to seize the moment and open tourism businesses.
Given Myanmar’s unspoiled shores, abundance of islands, and stunning marine life, snorkel and dive tourism are an obvious choice for anyone looking into the country’s tourism potential.
It’s time for a quick icebreaker session. Thanda introduces our team and the purpose behind this training. She asks the tour guides to talk a bit about their background.
After exchanging a few shy looks among each other, one of the tour guides named Ko Thet decides to take the lead. He’s quite tall and wearing ear piercings – something you don’t see every day in Myanmar. "For the past seven years, I worked in Koh Tao, an island on Thailand’s east coast. During the day, I was a boat boy on a dive boat, at night, I was a barkeeper in a tourist hotspot“. His English is good and he greets everyone with “Hello Darling”, a phrase he picked up from his Australian coworkers in Thailand.
Ko Thet is used to working on a boat and dealing with tourists from all around the globe. However, he’s never been the one holding the briefing or taking people out for a snorkel. “I really love the underwater world and I want to learn more about it. In Koh Tao, I saw that tourism could also have negative effects on the environment so I want to make sure I do a good job in my country and keep the coral healthy.”
In many countries, tourism is one of the most important sources of income. Worldwide, the tourism industry accounts for almost 300 million jobs. There are many examples of tourism bringing development and opportunity for locals.
Take the world-famous dive site Pulau Sipadan in Malaysia as an example. You can walk around this tiny island in less than 15 minutes, yet it attracts thousands of tourists looking for pristine marine life and big schools of pelagic fish each month. These tourists require transportation, accommodation, food and drinks, dive operators, and so on. Locals that used to fish to provide for their families now have a range of tourism-related jobs to get involved in.
Unfortunately, there’s also a dark site to marine tourism. If managed unsustainably, tourism can destroy the very things it is based upon and turn colorful coral gardens into sandy deserts.
In Pulau Sipadan things almost took a turn for the worse too. After the dive site was discovered, unregulated marine tourism pushed the boundaries of the precious marine ecosystem. Burdened by careless divers, snorkelers, and increased boat traffic, coral reefs deteriorated.
In 2005, the Malaysian government put a stop to this development by establishing a Marine Protected Area (MPA) and strictly limiting the number of visitors per day. Since then, tour operators are encouraged to practice responsible marine tourism. Sipadan’s reefs have been slowly recovering.
Sipadan is known for its big schools of jackfish and barracuda.
In Myanmar, marine tourism is just starting out. Therefore, training local tour guides around the coastal areas is a great opportunity to encourage marine-friendly tourism. Some basic rules include anchoring without damaging corals, teaching proper snorkeling technique to avoid kicking sand or coral, preventing marine pollution, and briefing tourists not to touch or take anything.
We finish the introduction round and are stunned by the diverse backgrounds of the guys around us. Some of them used to work in mining or construction, others in bars. One of them is studying law. Ko Htike, a wiry, quiet man, whose whole face brightens up when he smiles, is a fisherman. He’s used to spending long hours out at sea, but he decided to protect the marine environment from overfishing and instead show its beauty to tourists from all over the world. Everyone listens carefully to what we say. I’m surprised and happy that everyone is so eager to learn new things.
After about an hour we reach the first island. A dense, green jungle is covering the terrain, gently sloping down and opening up into protected little coves with unspoiled beaches. It’s stunning. We start our briefing with some basic things guides should be aware of when taking out customers on a reef trip. What should you organize before and during the trip, how do you give a proper briefing and how can you protect the coral throughout the tour. When we finally get into the water we're greeted by massive coral bommies covering the ground. Sadly, we encounter only a few fish.
Some of the guys actually haven’t used snorkel gear before, so we start by setting everyone up and making sure they know how to use the gear properly. Although it’s not common to learn swimming in Myanmar, most of the guys are already good swimmers.
We start to practice duck diving with snorkel and fins. This will help the guides to point out marine life to their customers. We keep practicing and I’m happy to see how keen everyone is to improve their technique.
We get back on the boat and drive to the next spot. Some snacks and a little debrief later, we have arrived at the next site. This time we’re concentrating on the different fish species.
There’s more life around this spot, so we’re taking a waterproof slate to refer to the marine life we're encountering. A few beautiful Moorish Idols are passing by. A white-orange striped clownfish is hovering over his anemone protecting it from intruders. A moray eel is sticking its head out of a crevice.
Now we can use our new skills and duck-dive down to have a closer look at the things we see. The reef seems relatively healthy, but I discover some areas with early coral bleaching and point it out to my fellow guides.
After another hour we leave for our last destination of the day. It’s another stunning bay, but as soon as we get into the water, we discover a big fishing line. We follow it along the reef. It seems endless and is entangled in many different types of corals. We take turns diving down to safely remove the line without damaging the reef. Quite the task with such a long line!
In the end, we emerge with a whole bunch of nylon ropes. Now the guides also know how to remove fishing nets or lines without breaking off any coral.
Time flies and suddenly the captain says we have to head back to the mainland before it gets dark.
The next day, we continue our training with a workshop on marine life and threats to the ocean. Ko Thet asks us whether we’ll be back for more training sessions. “I’d really love to try scuba diving as well. I’ve never had the chance in Thailand”.
We’re excited everyone wants to learn even more and feel encouraged to hold more trainings for tour guides along the coast.
Yes, we’ll be back – maybe even with some scuba diving equipment. But for now, we’re headed to our first cleanup expedition further out in the Myeik Archipelago!
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.