Somewhere amid the cerulean waters of the Andaman Sea a man dives for his family's dinner. He inhales, and in an instant disappears beneath the waves, his movements elegant and purposeful. The man holds his breath for what seems like an eternity, moving effortlessly through the water column, gathering from the sea as his ancestors have for thousands of years.
This man is a Moken, one of only a thousand that remain of this ancient culture of "sea gypsies." The last of the Moken live in the Mergui Archipelago, which spans 250 miles of warm waters off the coast of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Thailand. The Moken are called Chao Ley (people of the sea) in Thai, and it is a fitting name; for 8 months of the year they roam the waves in hand carved sail boats called Kabang, living off the bounty of the sea. An entire family lives in a Kabang, a hydrodynamic home fashioned from a single rainforest tree. Sometimes extended families come together forming a floating village to share resources, sing, and tell stories.
The Moken have adapted to their ocean lifestyle over centuries. They can see underwater twice as well as other humans, and in a single dive can reach depths that would have most people grabbing for SCUBA gear. They seem completely at ease in the water, and with good reason -- a Moken diver can hold their breath for up to an astounding 8 minutes, (as a competitive freediver myself I don't even come close to this.) Want to try to challenge the Moken record? There's an app for that.
Moken need, the sea has always provided, the coral reefs of their region are astoundingly biodiverse, with over 600 species of fish and more species of coral than the entire Great Barrier Reef. The Moken culture has evolved against the backdrop of this bountiful ecosystem; it is little wonder that there is no word for 'want' in their language.
To be a Moken means to live a life deeply harmonized with the sea. This harmony means that the Moken are good indicators of our oceans' health. A few years ago, these regions teemed with life, but today 80% of coral reefs in Southeast Asia are endangered and the Moken population has shrunk from 10,000 to just 1,000 over the past 15 years. Many local reefs are struggling to survive, straining under pressure from climate change, shark finning, offshore oil drilling, and destructive dynamite fishing that leaves the oceans barren, for the first time ever, the Moken are starving.
One Moken diver, a man named "Hook" is a brave catalyst to save what remains of his people's culture and wisdom. He works with The Moken Project, a non-profit dedicated to recording what they can of this amazing culture before it disappears.
Hook, like most of his people, see the signs of an ocean in peril, "For the Moken, the ocean is our entire universe, but today, the big boats come and take every fish. I wonder what they will do when the ocean is empty?"
In Moken culture, there is no concept for time but if there were, I think that they would say that the time for action must be now.
The Moken community has passed wisdom down for generations about the creatures and rhythms of the ocean. One of their legends tells of the Laboon ("the wave that eats people") that is brought on by angry spirits of the ancestors. Just before the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in 2004, Moken elders noticed strange wave patterns. Their warning to head to higher ground saved hundreds from one of the worst natural disasters in human history.
Many have wondered how the Moken were able to predict this disaster. I believe it is because they were paying close attention to the sea, a habit learned from their pure oceanic existence.
The suffering of the Moken sadly provides unequivocal evidence that our oceans are in crisis. If we are to learn anything from these incredible people it is to pay closer attention to what our oceans are telling us. If we are to avoid an 'empty' ocean future we must act now and plan accordingly.