They may look like regular folks frolicking in the water on a hot summer's day, but they're really much more remarkable than that. They are the Moken, a group of about 2,000 to 3,000 people who are born, live and die traveling the Andaman Sea around Southern Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Settling only during monsoon season, these "Sea Gypsies" live more than half the year in boats called kabang, each made from a single tree. They are master fishermen and expert divers, catching fish on spears with ease, while collecting a variety of other fruits of the sea by hand, such as sea cucumbers at low tide and shellfish at high tide.
Moken children learn how to swim before they can walk. The Moken can plunge to depths of 75 feet without any life support gear and can also lower their heart rates in order to hold their breaths for twice as long as other humans. And that's not all: Swedish scientist Anna Gislen also found that Moken children have the power to constrict their pupils to tiny pinpoints when they're in the water, enabling them to sharpen their sight and see much better underwater than the rest of us.
But how do they do it? At first, scientists thought that there might be some super-sighted genetic variation in play; after all, the Moken have been diving for hundreds of years. Perhaps, but Gislen's studies with European children showed some pretty cool results - after four to six months of training, Swedish youngsters would automatically constrict their pupils when they came in contact with water, though not to the extent of the Moken children, who have been practising this exercise far longer.
With their almost superpower diving abilities, the Moken could easily exploit the sea, reaping more than they require to sell or trade, but they choose not to. They live simple, low-impact lives, never catching more than is required to survive. A peaceful and nonviolent people, the Moken treat everyone as family, sharing what they have and abstaining from the accumulation of worldly possessions.
To be sure, the Moken's animist beliefs led them to worship the sea and respect its power. They know how to read the signs that the mighty ocean herself sends them, enabling them to find higher ground before anyone else knew that the 2004 Tsunami would hit.
Watch this interview with an old Moken about how they knew the tsunami was coming.
When asked how the Moken people knew that the tsunami would come, they speak of the Laboon, or the "wave that eats people," a legend that has been passed down through the generations. Angry ancestral spirits bring on this "Big Wave," but before it arrives, the sea recedes. Saleh Kalathalay, the village headman, recognized these signs before the 2004 Tsunami struck, and ran to warn everyone to move to higher ground to avoid the impending wave. Everyone was spared, except for one handicapped tribesman who was forgotten on the beach, and for this lapse of memory, the tribe believes it is cursed and will not rebuild their village in the same spot.
And although the Moken survived the devastating disaster of 2004, the traditional nomadic life and the knowledge of the sea that comes part and parcel with it, could soon be lost. Only about 1,000 Moken still lead the traditional life and the numbers continue to dwindle.
Until the 1980s, the Sea Gypsies were largely untouched by modern civilisation. With the influx of entrepreneurs and tourists over the past 30 years and pressure from government, some Sea Gypsies are being forced to settle in permanent villages. Moken men are overworked by Burmese fishermen, often dying from the bends after diving deep and resurfacing quickly. And military presence restricts free movement of the Moken, resulting in difficulties ranging from an inability for young people to find spouses to a lack of trading opportunities for staples such as rice.
Dire though the situation seems, there is still hope. Moken leaders continue to forge ahead to bring people together and pass down the stories and rituals that have enabled these people to live for so long in partnership with the sea. Certainly, the knowledge that the Sea Gypsies have passed on to the rest of the world is something we won't soon forget.
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