Myanmar's traditional salvage divers earn their living by plunging as deep as 61 meters (about 200 feet) through murky waters to haul debris from shipwrecks from the bottom of the Yangon River. Working in crews of four or five per boat, they dive twice a day, during the high tide. Between 20 and 30 diving crews operate out of the township of Dala, across the water from Yangon, Myanmar's former capital.
Diving for buried treasure is longstanding practice in the Yangon River. Here, the legend goes, lies the great Dhammazedi, a sacred Buddhist bell cast of silver and gold whose vast weight sank the riverboat that was carrying it. The bell was never recovered. Seven attempts to find and recover it from the riverbed have been launched since the 1990s, by both international and Myanmar teams.
Myanmar’s salvage divers, though, aren’t looking for silver and gold, but rather for pieces of metal and coal, which then get sold on the other side of the river by “an Indian businessman” for melting down and reuse. Each crew can earn about $1000 per month, salary enough to attract more people to join and learn the secrets of the trade from 50-year-old Master Than Htay.
When Than Htay started diving 37 years ago, Yangon river divers didn't have machines to pump oxygen to the riverbed—crews supplied oxygen to divers with a bicycle pump. Today, each boat has a little gas-powered air compressor that pumps oxygen down through rubberized tubes to divers. Than Htay teaches diving and organizes the diving business by assembling crews and boats, dividing up the money. He also sets up the occasional assignment from clients who are looking to salvage a particular ship or do other underwater work.
With flimsy handmade masks and weighted down with chains, divers can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes. It’s dangerous. In 2007, Phoe Zaw, 36, was mid-dive when the air compressor suddenly broke and stopped feeding him oxygen from the surface. Now, like many fellow divers, he would like to quit. “I would like to change to another business,” Says Phoe Zaw, “Not in the water.”
But many of the Yangon divers don’t have many other options. Moe Kyo Kyo, 23, supplements the income by moonlighting as a motorbike-taxi driver. “I don't have a high level education, so I do not expect a really good other job,” says Moe Min Aung. “I just would like to have a job where I don't have to do physical hard work.”
Photos by Sandra Weller for COLORS magazine.