Researchers warn that Myanmar's Mergui archipelago should be made a protected area before the signs of human-caused pollution reach its unspoiled waters.
Moken free diver Nguk Suriyan Katale in the feature documentary 'No Word for Worry' about the nomadic tribe's fight for survival
"Once it gets more developed, the more used it is, [it becomes] really hard to argue that it's important for it to remain an untouched spot," says Marinelli, who stresses the archipelago's importance both for local wildlife and for the Moken, a shrinking 3,000-strong nomadic seafaring tribe.
For at least 300 years, the Moken, or "sea gypsies," have relied on the ocean to survive. They freedive the emerald blue waters to depths of 20 meters, holding their breath for seven minutes while they spear fish or scavenge the seabed for molluscs.
Catching no more than their daily needs dictate, they are the epitome of sustainable fishers. Anthropologists believe they have roamed the archipelago off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand for centuries - spending up to eight months a year living on wooden kabang boats.
The #link:http://www.projectmoken.com/:Moken# are already familiar with the environmental damage that comes with development. Three years ago, Nguk Suriyan Katale - a skilled Moken free-diver - participated in cleanup dives south of Phuket. After a day's work, he'd found a big oil drum, a car tire, and large trawler nets used to sweep the ocean floor among the 15 tons of garbage collected.
"If there's a lot of garbage underwater, it will reduce the sea life population," Katale said, citing turtles that die from eating plastic. "And fishing nets that get caught in the corals can kill them, and local marine life."
The last sea nomads in Burma mainly live in small villages on islands in the Southern part of the Mergui Archipelago, but they still use the last traditional Kabang boats as their home while fishing and collecting food. The smaller dug-out canoes are called Cha-Pan.
Hager, who first encountered large volumes of plastic litter in the ocean while studying sea lions in the US, describes it as a particularly worrisome pollutant. Across the board.
"Microplastic is a danger to all life on earth, not just animals in the sea, but also to us humans," she said. "It has the ability to absorb chemicals in the ocean like pesticides, medicines, flame retardants. And all those chemicals have the potential to accumulate in the tissue of the fish."
Research on the fringes of the archipelago has revealed that four out of five beach samples have already absorbed microplastic - largely styrofoam. Some of it, Hager explains, comes from loading material onto fishing boats and from local construction sites.
The greater the number of commercial development and fishing projects that are allowed, the greater the likelihood of finding plastic particles in nearby waters.
Without protected status, development of the Mergui Archipelago on Myanmar's coast could easily suffer a similar, unfortunate fate. For people like Katale, it would not only change the look of his native waters - but also the very way he lives.
Hager taking samples on the beaches of Koh Phayam near the Mergui Archipelago. In her findings, only one out of five samples did not contain any microplastics
His message is gentle, but clear: "It would be good if people can help collect garbage anytime they go to the beach or get in the water, just a little bit will help."
The archipelago hosts blotched stingrays, ghost pipefish and ribbon eels among expanses of untouched coral. The question is, can this perfect marine ecosystem be prevented from falling prey to the heavy hand of progress?
Some information was obtained courtesy of the Project Moken