Search for a whale shark leads to treasure
Oliver Soe Thet
The islands off the coasts of Myanmar and their surrounds are laden
with treasure. Not pirates’ gold but something far better: clear
waters, pristine sands and best of all, fish and mammals that in
other waters have long disappeared. One of them is the Whale Shark,
the gentle giants of the ocean who eat plankton as their main food
source. On Full Moon days they rise near the surface to follow this
delicacy. Whale Sharks have been protected in Myanmar since March of 2001.
Many reports from divers who during the last season entered from Southern
Myanmar to the Andaman Sea, reported that they never saw so many Whale
Sharks in the same place as in Myanmar waters.
While on a voyage to spot them, we discovered
a treasure of an island, off Ngapali Beach. U Myo Naing, an old and
experienced fisherman who is a keen supporter of protecting Whale
Sharks came to me one day in Ngapali and said that today was a good
chance to see the "Way La Nga" as they are known in the local
language. He had noted the presence of small fish, which follow in
their wake and knew that the huge creatures are in the vicinity. Whale
Sharks travel thousands of miles and always in groups.
Myanmar is one of the last places in the whole
world where Whale Sharks can be seen. It is one highlight for the tourism
industry, but one that needs to be carefully supervised so as not
to disturb the Whale Sharks and their environment. International Animal
Protection Laws forbids getting directly in touch with the Whale Shark,
so a distance of at least 20 meters away must be kept for boats, divers
and snorklers. Several tourists also wanted to see this biggest ‘fish’
on earth and so we collected a group of two American ladies, an Italian
gentleman and three German. I checked again late afternoon with U
Myo Naing and we set the departure time for the next morning 4:00
am. U Myo Naing knew a place that only fishermen knew about, Coconut
Island, which would take at least 3 hours to reach. As our boat was
not so fast I decided to calculate an additional two hours just to
be on the safe side. By 3:30 am the next morning, the boat was already
loaded with food and water for three days, just to be sure if we got
marooned. Blankets, life jackets and many rolls of film were packed
as well. All of us, including U Myo Naing and his brother U Ba Shwe
were on board by 4:00 am. Soon we were riding the waves due West –
North – West, followed by a long tail boat just to have some back
Everyone except the Captain and Ko Myo Naing
nodded off to sleep but by 5:30 am the pale sunlight emerged from behind
the Rakhine Yoma mountain ranges. Waking up with the sunrise in the
middle of the sea is one of the best experiences of my life, with
the fresh sea breeze brushing your nose. As far you can see there
is empty sea in front of you, as you sit wrapped and warm in blankets.
It is like a meditation session. By then we could not see the land
anymore U Myo Naing changed his navigation system from night ( stars
to daytime ( sun ). Combined with all his experiences, having grown
up in these waters, he was a pearl diver until recent years. Now
he still dives but only for normal oyster or other shellfish for
the local market. His light red hair shows that he is a real Sea Gypsy.
In his region he is also know as a great Barracuda fisherman using
only the traditional long line and simple tools made out of bamboo.
7:00 am was breakfast time on board: fresh coffee, tea, sandwiches and
cake, and some Rakhine traditional snacks like steamed sticky rice
with roasted salt fish, and salted black sesame seeds. Suddenly U
Myo Naing excitedly pointed in one direction and nearly jumped into
the water with joy. We nearly spilled our coffee in excitement. There
was a family of dolphins, chasing after mackerels. They passed by
and it was worth all this sudden action, for several minutes we could
follow the dolphins as they changed directions, chasing their food.
In another moment we could see the flying fish, which actually does
not fly: he jumps to escape the barracuda chasing him.
We were already four hours on sea and no land
in the back as well no land in the front; U Myo Naing now believed
me that our boat is slow. After another 25 minutes, a cry from one
guest sitting in the prow: " Land! Land! ". Yes! That was Coconut
Island and with each minutes it loomed more big and real to us. In
another 30 minutes we could see its beauty: white sand beach, a small
mountain with thick green trees. We nearly forgot the Whale Sharks
with all the excitement. But not Ko Myo Naing who was quite disappointed
even this early on our trip that we had not spotted any yet. He felt
sorry and embarrassed that he could not conjure up the giants for his
friends to see! For him it was unthinkable that we have come all this
way and not see a single Whale Shark. We landed at this beautiful island
known as Coconut Island, although we saw no coconut palms on the beach.
Through the crystal clear water we could see to the bottom, with all
kinds of small fish swimming around, in colours of yellow and marine
U Myo Naing had carefully chosen a place for
our anchor so as not to hit a coral but also to have a good grip, since
it was low tide and the difference with high tide could be easily
1 to 1.5 meter. We did not want to get stuck which might mean an
overnight stay. With our long tail boat we made a tour around the
Island, which had many reefs under water. The center of the island
is very green with a small mountain covered by bigger trees. It looked
really like an island out of an adventure story. I thought this could
not be so much different from heaven itself.
We did not need to put our snorkel masks since
the water is so clear. When U Myo Naing said he saw a big sting ray
on the western shore of the island, which could be reached in less
than 10 minutes, we all hurried there and glided into the water, looking
down at this majestic creature dozing on the sea bottom only about
4 meters deep. It was the size of a big sun umbrella! Some of us
dove deeper to get a bit closer to him, but always keeping a good
distance away. We are lucky that he woke up and glided away only
after 10 minutes. He swam so smoothly, looking peaceful and elegant,
leaving us with a special kind of awe.
One smaller fishing boat landed near us, and
the four sunburnt fishermen began to sort their catch, beautiful fish
in all sizes. This is the moment when the chef and the nature lover
in me go in different directions. I think a healthy mixture of both,
with full respect for nature is the right choice. We decided to explore
further inland, everyone scattering in different directions, feeling
we were about to discover a new world. We saw a few abandoned huts
made of sticks and huge leaves, surrounded by a mangrove of trees
growing over 20 feet high. Some of them were joined like Siamese twins.
We cannot help sensing that this is a mystic place full of old forgotten
stories. What stories these trees could tell, if they could speak….
We were not wrong about old stories. Thant
Zin Oo, our chef who was with us and I made our way to the northern
part of the island and suddenly noticed that we were following a path
of some kind. We followed it a while and came to a hole in the rocks,
not a usual or natural hole: it looked man-made, about 50 cm by 80
cm wide and about 1 meter deep. It even has a step going down. Was
it for water? And why is it only 1 meter deep? Why the step? Who dug
it? I cannot gauge when it could have been made. Maybe it was recent,
maybe it is centuries old. To our surprise we found something else
very special, a single coconut tree just 1 meter high growing not
too far from the hole. It was the only Coconut Tree at the whole island!
The person who named this island Coconut Island must surely have
been dreaming of a coconut groves! A few of us went up the hill and
had a great view of the open sea, as if we were the only people living
on earth, so close but so far away from civilization. By 13:00 pm
we had to prepare for our departure from this wonderful refuge; we
had to say goodbye to the tranquility of the island. As we went on
our way we watched the island until it disappeared over the horizon.
U Myo Naing still did not give up his wish
to show us the Whale Sharks all the way home. Once he got up and waved
his arms excitedly, looking as if he would get a heart attack, but
all we could see was something big that dove down into the depths.
U Myo Naing was quite sure it was a Whale Shark. With such treasures
as pristine nature on sea and land, it is our responsibility to protect
them from pollution, poachers and harmful industries. Eco tourism
must be supported so that we keep our treasures safe.