Published: April 2005

Online Extra

Moken In Boat

Tsunami Update

Saved by Knowledge of the Sea

By Jennifer S. Holland
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by Nicolas Reynard

The tsunami that devastated coastlines and swallowed hundreds of thousands of lives in December appears to have spared the Moken of Southeast Asia, according to recent reports. Known as sea gypsies, these elusive nomads number between 2,000 and 3,000 and are divided into traditional seafaring groups off Myanmar (formerly Burma) in the Andaman Sea and smaller groups settled on the coast of Thailand.

In the disaster's wake the Moken made headlines. Despite their proximity to the water, only one—a disabled man in a Thai settlement—was known to be killed by the wave. Hundreds of others, relying on their deep knowledge of the sea, ran to high ground. "They read nature's signals: the silence, the receding of the water, the color of the sea, the strong current," says anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff, who since January has been surveying the damage to the islands in the Andaman and the traditional Moken who live there. "They have collective memory of the multiple rolls of a tsunami. They knew the second wave was the killer, so they had time to escape before it came."

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