Ever swam in and under the sea without goggles with your eyes wide open? How bad did the salt hurt?
We all get our eyes red from exposure to sea water. While there’s no escaping that, it is often not the case with most sea nomad tribes. The Moken people who dwell in the islands of the Andaman sea along the coast of Thailand, are one such example.
The Moken are a special breed of people when it comes to underwater vision. Almost as much at home in the sea as they are on the coasts, members of this tribe are even capable of walking the floor of the shallow oceans hunting for food without any gear!
Experiments on them have established that while having very normal eyesight outside water, they’re not prone to the blurred vision that plagues humans in water and can see very well. It’s a bit of a mystery exactly how they do it but the Moken are able to constrict their pupils at will for them to see better under water. And their eyes do not get irritated by the salt when exposed to sea water.
Despite being a traditional and nomadic people, it is told that in December 2004, the Moken survived the tsunami that ravaged parts of Asia on boxing day, through their folklore. They knew through their oral traditions that whenever the sea retreats, a giant devastating wave follows. All of them fled their coasts to higher ground.
In contrast, thousands of tourists and modern people along the coasts who were supposed to be well educated, lost their lives to the tsunami because they did not know they had to flee when they saw the sea recede.
Remarkable as their physical adaptations to water are, their way of living and folklore are, the Moken are said to be a people at risk of disappearing. These people with little thought for private property and material wealth, find themselves harassed by navy personnel who demand food or money. They are also confronted by modern society and surrounded by litigants striving for oil and industrial fishing rights in the sea, and on the coasts, estate developers and tourism operators striving for land rights. By the conservation regulations guarding the Surin Islands, the Moken are prohibited from chopping wood to build their vessels. Consequently, many of them are forced to leave their islands for the Thai mainland and to endure the culture shock that follows such a move.
Declining fish stocks also mean that the Moken take to swimming and freediving less frequently, with the result that their physical adaptations and abilities are fading away while they’re getting more integrated into global society as their contact with the modern world increases.