Photo by Sofie Olsen
Hook and his brother Ngui belong to a community that has been placed in a National Park. Being amongst the best divers, their responsibility is to harvest from the deep; spearing fish and gathering other delicacies like oysters, lobster and the popular sea urchins. They can stay submerged for minutes and reach depths of over 20 meters, even without the help of modern fins and masks. Nowadays the gatherers among the Moken may be prohibited from beachcombing. At those times the brothers are labored with the task of bringing back food for their whole community. On a typical day, Hook and Ngui may stay in the water for hours on end, drifting with the currents along the coastline of an island for many miles.
The Moken harpoon is a great example of how less is more: in principle it is just a stick. No ropes or elastic bands, just the thrust of a skilled hand. Yet the harpoon is the essential tool feeding the Moken, and has been for all tropical sea nomads throughout history. The Moken harpoon is a carefully chosen mature bamboo rod, straightened over the fire with extreme precision. When there is no metal to be acquired, the heads will all be made from wood. The shape of the point is chosen according to what game you are after. In the water, it would be a slim point so the fish is secured further up on the harpoon. Throwing it into the water from above the surface calls for three sharp points in a triangle that will grab the prey. On land, a particularly sturdy type of wood is shaped into a blade and transforms the harpoon into a spear that kills wild boar and smaller game. Using a harpoon enables the Moken to catch only what they need, as opposed to the more indiscriminate fishing tools such as baited hooks or nets. A skilled diver knows where the species he wants lives, and catches them “at home”. This is usually at depths between 5-7 meters in order to avoid the uncomfortable breathing reflex one would have to endure if one stays several minutes. A typical Moken would never be able to afford a modern spear-gun with a mechanical thrust. However, should one appear it would be used with enthusiasm.
Many coral reefs teeming with fish are situated so deep that even tech divers of today face real challenges visiting them. An ingenious way of reaching some of those resources is to lure the game (fish) within reach. This is the purpose of the Bamboo Islands. A rope is moored in the middle of a reef that may be i.e. 80 meters deep. A fan of palm leaves is attached at every meter of this rope up until just 10 meters below the surface. At the top, a buoy is constructed by tying huge bamboo rods up like a bouquet of flowers. The long tips will stand high up and be visible miles away. When microscopic organisms start to grow on the palm leaves below, it creates the foundations for a complete ecosystem where the top predators, like barracudas and sharks, eventually circle around. It also provides shade, which brings many species higher up in the middle of the day. Alas, an artificial reef is created, drawing fish up from the bottom to be harvested more easily.
Where fishing industries frequent the waters, the Moken no longer consider using the Bamboo Islands. The Moken have always been forced to give way to more persistent societies where there are riches to harvest from. The Bamboo Islands have been around since the Stone Age, today it is the modern fishing industry that uses them.
Decompression sickness (DCS), also known as “the bends”, is a set of devastating conditions that can occur when diving with compressed air. It arises from dissolved gases coming out of solution into bubbles inside the body on depressurization. In short: it is like opening a can of soda in your bloodstream. The symptoms are many, and its effects may vary from joint pain and rashes to paralysis, heart condition, and death. Individual susceptibility can vary from day to day, and different individuals under the same conditions may be affected differently or not at all. Although DCS is not a common event with modern diving, its potential severity is such that much research has gone into preventing it, and underwater divers use dive tables or dive computers to set limits on their exposure to pressure and their ascent speed. Treatment of DCS is by hyperbaric oxygen therapy in a recompression chamber. If treated early, there is a significantly higher chance of successful recovery.
Since DCS is not an issue when free-diving, the Moken have no expertise when faced with this relatively new set of problems. They become victims of DCS through being exploited by the fishing industry and forced to accept compressed air when sent down to mend permanent nets and traps, harvesting sea cucumbers for export, or pick up dead fish after blasting the coral reefs with charges of dynamite. What happens is this: a compressor on board a vessel pumps air into tubes lowered to the divers so their time in the deep is extended. Working on the seabed in these conditions is in itself extremely dangerous. However most accidents and health hazards happen when ascending to the surface as this is when the pressurized gases transform into bubbles. Due to sloppy handling and poor conditions of the equipment used, emergency ascension often becomes a necessity and the effects are disastrous. Needless to say, the Moken have no access to treatment facilities.