Freediveukand the moken

Freedive UK and Project Moken – Part one – First contact

We are pleased to announce that we are now working closely alongside Project Moken, an initiative set-up to bring attention to the plight of the Moken sea nomads.

 

During the research of my book, ‘Underwater foraging – Freediving for food’ , and more specifically the section of the history of freediving and foraging, I came across references to a tribe of freedivers/spearos who lived a nomadic lifestyle to the west of Burma and Thailand. It wasn’t long before the trail lead to ‘Project Moken’, and the documentary that they were producing, covering the story the Moken diver, ‘Hook’.

Norway

I contacted Project Moken to ask if I could use their images in the book, to which they agreed and were forthcoming in considering a future collaboration re ideas for supporting the Moken. A few weeks later they invited me to come out to Norway, as Hook and his brother Ngui just so happened to be traveling to Oslo in order to assist in final translations for the documentary, so that we could meet the brothers and talk about future collaborations.

We quickly organised for a small team to go out and stay at Project Moken HQ, a team selected for their unique skill sets; an aquaculturist, an event organiser, a documentary photographer, an entrepreneur and an underwater photographer. All people who may be invoilved with the project in the future and all people who could help with their specific skill set… not to forget that they were all freedivers too!

Freediveukand the moken

We landed at Oslo and made our way to the quiet peninsula which would be our home for the next few days. The team at Project Moken had managed to secure us some accommodation  in the house next door, which just so happened to be an empty kindergarten! So after laying down some mattresses, all in terrifyingly close proximity to one another,we quickly realised that this would be a be a bonding trip in lots of ways!

Meeting the Moken

hook

We first met the Moken brothers Hook and Ngui, on the steps to Project Moken HQ. We all shook hands, in typical western fashion, all the time with the niggling concern… is this how you greet Moken? I have been to Thailand many times and know that for Buddhist Thai you press your hands together in prayer when saying hi… is it the same here?  Plus the Moken language doesnt have a word for hello…Oh well…

‘sa wa dee krap’ … Comes out without even thinking, all those months in Thailand traveling and diving are paying off, and in a suburb in Oslo of all places!

Our first hours were dominated by the usual, no doubt tedious questioning. The Moken, with the aid of their translators answered with kind patience, but you could see that they have been through this a hundred times before. I did my best to guide my conversation to topics that may actually interest them. Being a keen freediver/forager/spearo I knew that talk of successful hunts and fish would spark genuine interest. I was right.

The Moken left us early that night as they had had a heavy night the night before courtesy of their Norwegian hosts and the local karaoke bar, leaving us by the fire to talk the night away.

Making our spears

Summer in Norway means an evening of perpertual twilight, so despite our best efforts we stayed up late, meaning that we were a little bleary eyed the next day. Nonetheless, we had a fun day planned with some fun dives in the Fjord with the Moken. First things first though, whats the point in a dive with he Moken without Moken spears?!

We sit down on the deck, lengths of bamboo in hand, scavenged from a dry-docked Moken Kabang (house boat) and set ourselves to creating the 4-5m long hand spears the Moken use to hunt with.

Of course we were to be taught the basics by the Moken brother first, as im sure our unguided efforts would have been laughable.

After watching one being made from scratch, we joined in the process and without too much trouble created a couple more spears (although none quite as refined as the Moken version).

trying-on-freediving-wetsuitsOur first dives with the sea nomads

The Norwegian fjords are a little colder than the 30c water of Thailand, so we needed to get the Moken in to a couple of our freediving wetsuits. You could see the disbelief in their faces as we explained that they needed to soap up before the suits would slip on! Im not sure when it was said, but at one point Ngui stated that they would starve to death if they had to get in to such an awkward thing everytime they needed to hunt! I cant help but agree…

The donning of the suits was priceless, comedy gold, for all parties involved.

Eventually we got everything together and made our way to the Fjord, where we too got kitted up and without hesitation got in to the water.

I got in without my fins and started to glide about the surface, peering in to the brown water… no more than 3-4m vis here, but the water wasnt too cold and its always nice to be in the water, wherever it is.

After a couple of dives I came accross a pipeline. In my head I immediately thought ‘lobsters or crabs’… and i was right! After a quick rummage i find a ian donald and mokenfair sized lobster under the pipe. Without hesitation I grab it and return to the surface. Let me tell you, that was quite the weight off my mind, to find food in the presence of such natural hunters, rather than to spend the day fruitlessly searching for anything and everything… “pressures off” I think to myself.

We spent the rest of the day diving in a variety of locations in the Fjord. The highlight had to be taking a small boat out to a reef in the middle of the Fjord with my mate Al Scarlett (he took many of the photos for my book) and the two Moken brothers. The boat was small, the engine was small, the wind was fairly strong, the water was choppy… it wasnt an easy crossing!

What struck me the hardest was how despite our completely different social backgrounds, the shared experiences that we had in the ocean meant that we had something deeper in common. In the time we spent out there in the water together, we shared so many knowing glances and vague gestures that the language and social barriers were totally eroded and we were just 4 spearfishermen bobbing about in a Fjord in Norway. A special moment.

norway-kelp-reef-1The attack of the 7ft kelp

An unexpected part of our time in Norway was to get involved with an artificial reef project (organised by Pro Dykke dive centre oslo), using collected sugar kelp, suspended on rope.

The idea actually came from the Moken, as its what they do to attract fish in their native waters, dropping bamboo reefs on ropes.

We started the day by taking two boats out to an area known to have a high concentration of the long broad kelp. Thankfully I was placed on the fast boat with the Norwegian press and the Moken, whilst my comrades were put on the little boat which not only was slow but was very wet…. hahaha!

kelp-reef

After a 30 minute ride we arrived at a fast flowing section of the Fjord, in-between a small island and the mainland where the water was dark and had very poor vis, perhaps 2m at best. We set up a system where the boats would drop us in upstream, allow us to collect the kelp in the rushing tide and then collect us again downstream.

In a 30 minute period of very intense diving we collected a boat load of kelp. It was fun, but exhausting!

Once back on dry land we set about attaching the kelp to a 20m reclaimed rope, which would in-turn be attached to another rope that was anchored to the Fjord bed.

The idea being that the kelp would continue to grow on the rope and start attracting more life, compounded when more ropes and more kelp would be placed alongside this virgin kelp string.

Time to go home and start planning

It was a great few days that we spent with our new friends in Norway, but more importantly it gave us the foundation for what we are planning now. The future looks not only exciting but promising for us, Project Moken and more importantly the Moken themselves.

In my next post Ill cover in more detail our immediate plans with the Moken… mainly the 2014 expedition… which you can come on!

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