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People of the Ocean

“When a baby is born, we don’t need a doctor. Everything takes place here, on the boat. We don’t have any medicine. We can’t go to a hospital; we stay here for the birth. And the mother takes care of the baby,” says Bungsali, an old-looking man whose age it is impossible to guess as he has no record of when he was born. He has spent his entire life on a boat and wants his grandchildren to continue his lifestyle.

The Bajau Laut or Sama Dilaut, also known as sea gypsies, are an indigenous ethnic group who have retained their seaborne lifestyle. They are boat dwellers who roam the Coral Triangle (a triangular expanse of tropical marine waters encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste) or settle in small stilt houses erected on the reef or islands. They are traditionally from the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines, the coastal areas of Mindanao, and northern Borneo. The Bajau are currently considered to be the second largest ethnic group in the Malaysian state of Sabah, although the exact figures of their population is unknown.

Two women and their children near the island of Mabul, where they sold freshly caught fish to tourists.

Life on the water

According to legend, a princess from Johor, Malaysia, was washed away during a flash flood. Her mourning father ordered his subjects to search for his daughter, forbidding them from returning to the kingdom until she had been found, and they’ve been wandering the seas ever since.

“The Bajau Laut are like the American Red Indians or Australian Aborigines. It’s just that much harder to track them and explore their culture, because they are always on the move,” says Suhaime Bin Ejip, the mayor of Semporna. The ocean is everything to the Bajau. It’s their home, a playground for their children, and their main source of food and income.

Most Bajau are unaware of their age, have but one name, and are unable to read or write. On top of this, many have no formal documents to speak of or know where they were born. A few years ago, special Bajau Laut documents began being issued in Sabah. The government now registers the sea nomads officially as Bajau Laut.

“I’ve been told I am 32 years old now,” says Agunnay, who now lives on Mabul Island with his family. Remarking on his experience of receiving his official document he continues, “They just looked at me and decided that I should be around that age.”

The issue of Bajau Laut documents has now been suspended. “A lot of people wanted to take advantage of Bajau Laut papers because they allow people to move freely between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. So they would just turn up and say that they were Bajau Laut and want to receive papers, even though they clearly were from the land,” says Bin Ejip.

No documents mean no education or health care. The Sama Dilaut are unable to live a regular life and are continually forced to face difficulties. “They have almost no rights, are very poor, and they have to make a living with limited material resources. They are also uneducated and have no experience of other kind of works than fishing,” says Erik Abrahamsson, a Swedish anthropologist who has spent some time with the Sama Dilaut learning one of their dialects and studying their life and culture.

Lakit is applying burak to her face - a paste of rice flour, turmeric and water, which cools and acts as a sunscreen.

Often several generations of Bajau Laut live in one or more chain-linked boats and roam together.
The back of the boat serves as a family kitchen and a bathroom.

Siboto brushes her teeth in the family's "bathroom" - at the back of the boat. Smaller boats attached to the family's "home" - the main boat - are designed for short trips to the town of Semporna or other islands to transport food and water.

Batu and her grandson Sempula spend time in the "living room" in the center of the boat, where the whole family of 8 go to sleep together at night.
Lakit and Siboto don’t go to school and spend all the time on the boat with the family.

No governmental support is offered to those who choose to live on the water. The opposite is true, in fact. Any stateless Bajau Laut who needs medical assistance has to pay for it, and this can sometimes be the same price charged to uninsured travelers. A great many Sama Dilaut die simply because they cannot afford to go to the hospital.

Stateless, the Bajau Laut continue to roam the waters. “From my grandfather to my grandchildren we all live on the boat. We have no gods, so my grandfather is like a god to me. He told me that I cannot stay on land. It's like a commandment from him,” Bungsali explains. “My family cannot live on land. I have no others skills, just fishing. All I know is how to live on the sea.”

The only time that Bungsali and his family venture on land is to get fresh water from the mountains or to buy some food, fuel, and cigarettes in the town. Sometimes the feeling of stable ground beneath their feet makes them land sick and they have to rush back to their boats.

“I only know the time from the Sun. When I see the Sun in the east, I know that it is morning. When the sun is above my head, it is midday. When it moves to the west, I know that it is evening and then the night comes. I don’t know the hours, only these four points during the day,” he says.

The sea nomads can travel freely within the Coral Triangle, with the waters of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines being their most common destinations. These days, however, the increasing threat of violence has meant that it is not safe to cross borders, especially into Philippine waters. This has led to the current high concentration of Bajau in Malaysia.

Even in safe waters, the lives of the Bajau can still be beset by many dangers. As we were talking, Bungsali was eager to finish the interview as he saw that a storm was coming and wanted to find a place for his boat in shallow waters before it hit.

“Life on the sea is very dangerous. Especially when a storm breaks. You can never know what might happen. There might be some accident or you might get sick. The boat is our home, so if something gets broken, it can get dangerous,” he explains.

Barisajya and her children, Bungsali’s grandchildren Romi and Ina, are waiting for family men to return from Semporna Market with food and fuel. Romi and Ina don’t go to school, they spend all the time in a boat with their family.

Bungsali smoking in his boat near the town of Semporna, where he came to buy fuel and food.

Langring washes himself and brushes his teeth at the stern of the ship. Town of Semporna can be seen in the distance.

Instability on stable ground

As times change, fewer Bajau are able to live a traditional boat-based lifestyle. Decreasing fish stocks, piracy, and other dangers in the water have forced the Sama Dilaut to move onto land to look for other sources of food and income. Sama Rea – literally, “land Bajau” – still retain their bonds with the Sama Dilaut, as the land Sama buy fish from and sell commodities to the Sama Dilaut.

Many of the Sama Dilaut have moved into small stilt houses that have been built right on the coral reef or on small islands. While most of these islands are privately owned, the ocean belongs to everybody. This is why a Bajau who has decided to live on land simply builds wherever they want. They have no concept of private property and view the land as they view the sea. It takes only a few days to build a hut.

Agunnay is one of these people. He has not only built a small house for his family, but has even bought himself a wrist watch so that he can look more like a modern man. “I have a watch, but I don’t know the numbers. So if I need to know the time, I go to my neighbors, show them my watch, and ask what the time is.”

More than 3,000 Sama Dilaut live on Mabul Island right now. There are both smaller and larger communities on other islands in the Semporna region as well.

It took only a few days for Agunnay and his nephew to build this cottage on the island of Mabul. They used found materials to build it.

A woman draws water from a boat near her home, close to the island of Sibuan in Malaysia.

“I am happy when I can see the ocean. Even though I live on land, ever since I was little I was always glad to be able to see the Ocean,” Agunnay says. “Just as my father, we are people of the ocean.”
Agunnay has five sons and two daughters. He goes fishing whenever the weather permits, with his catch both sustaining his family and giving him what money he earns. His wife Intanlasa also helps her husband, adding to the table whatever she can find in the water. “I see the ocean as my home. For all Bajau people it is like that,” she says.

“Sama Dilaut are very conservative. They have not completely adapted to the Islamic community that has been so influential in the Sulu region for more than 500 years. They still have animistic beliefs dating from the time before Islam,” says Abrahamsson.

However, the comfort afforded them by their new life has also increased their willingness to experiment with modernity. “They can access products that may make them more flexible, for example, engines and petrol, but this process also makes them more dependent on the monetary market,” Abrahamsson explains. This has also led to the loss of their traditional craft of boat-building, forcing them to move from their hand-made lipa lipa boats. Sugar and tobacco addiction are also a problem, and the desire for such devices as mobile phones and TVs is also on the rise.

Some have started to study or get jobs. But life on land is not easy. They lose their freedom, become dependent on the labor market, have few or no rights at all, and are open to exploitation. “I have talked to many house-dwelling Sama Dilaut on, for example, Mabul and Pulau Gaya islands that say they want to move to a houseboat if they can afford it. It is easier for them to roam around and to make a living in a houseboat than in a stilt house. It might turn into a ‘prison’ if they have no petrol and cannot go into the ocean,” Abrahamsson says.

A Bajau Laut woman doing dishes in her cottage built on Sibuan Island, Malaysia.

Into the depths in one breath

Living at one with the ocean, the Bajau have developed an extraordinary skill for free diving. They can go down as deep as 20 meters to look for sea fish. In the past they would also dive for pearls.
The problem is that they dive without full knowledge and understanding of what happens to the body while diving. Barotrauma may occur, and when they extend dives to catch bigger fish at greater depths, hypoxia with a risk of syncope may occur, endangering the diver and sometimes even resulting in death.

But Agunnay, following in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather, is now discovering freediving for himself. "When Father took me to free dive for the first time, I didn’t know how to do it. He just showed me how to breathe and block my nose. Then he tied a rope with some weights to me and dropped me into the ocean," Agunnay explains.

Agunnay smokes whenever he has the money to buy cigarettes. He says that smoking helps him relax his lungs and is very good for him, especially before freediving. “After freediving, when I go up, I need to rest for a while. I want to smoke then. Two to three cigarettes and then I can dive again. Smoking helps me to breathe.”

Agunnay’s wife Intanlasa remarks that when her husband goes diving, she is more concerned about whether or not he will come back alive than she is about the size of his catch. “When he takes longer than usual, I get worried. I look at the ocean and imagine what might have happened to him.”
“Free diving is dangerous. If I have a very deep dive, I just concentrate on how much money I could make if I caught an expensive fish. So I push myself to go deeper. And when I push myself, I don’t know if I’m going to catch the fish or die trying,” Agunnay adds.

Whenever there is low tide and the weather permits, the children go out into the ocean to look for food. For Bajau children, there is no distinction between land and sea – they feel comfortable in both environments.

Agunnay often goes fishing in distant waters with friends. But when the weather is unfavorable and there is a lack of food, he swims in shallower waters alone and fishes with a harpoon.

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The ability to see under water requires specific physiological conditions that are not common to the visual capacities of humans. Studies have recently brought to light just what it is that allows the Bajau to have such clear underwater vision. “The children start swimming before they can walk, and children aged 4-10 years were observed collecting small shells from a non-contrasting background with high precision,” says Anna Gislen and Erika Schagatay in the book “Was Man More Aquatic in the Past?” (2011, Bentham, edited by Vaneechoutte, Kuliukas, Verhaegen).

Generally, the human eye cannot focus very well underwater because of its structure being adapted to air, and this causes images to appear blurry and unclear. The shape of the cornea helps the lens of the eye focus the image in air. When the eye is surrounded by water, this effect is gone, and the lens only can focus the light on the retina, Gislen and Schagatay explain. When people dive, the light is not refracted as much as needed and the image is blurry. We normally need a diving mask with air inside to be able to restore the effect of the curved cornea. Bajau Laut children can, however, due to their training, go underwater without goggles and bring home shells. In fact, they can see twice as clearly as other children under water.

Part of the Bajau children’s impressive underwater acuity is due to their very flexible lenses, which can adjust more than usual, partly explained by their ability to constrict their pupils. Under comparative analysis Bajau Laut children were shown to be able to constrict their pupils significantly more than their European counterparts and were thus able to achieve a far greater clarity of vision underwater, according to studies by Gislen and Schagatay.

The Sama Dilaut measure happiness by the amount of fish they catch. Agunnay says he is generally a happy man. It is only when rain prevents him from fishing or after an unsuccessful catch that sadness pervades his little house. “I have a happy life when I go fishing and catch a lot. But sometimes I come back empty,” Agunnay explains. He lights his third cigarette in a row.

Intanlasa says her husband is a great fisherman and that she wants their children to follow in his footsteps and be able to sustain their lives from the sea. “Sometimes he takes the children to the ocean. The kids need to follow and study what their father does in the water, learn how he catches fish.”

“I am teaching them to fish. But I started to think that we do not have anyone to read and write for us in the family. So one of my sons is now going to school,” Agunnay says.

Rejina playing in the water off the coast of Mabul Island.
Minjul (on the right) and his friends playing together off the coast of Mabul Island.
Under the right weather conditions, Sama Dilaut children go to the ocean in search of seafood. During their childhood they spend a lot of time in the water, so their eyes adapt to seeing underwater.
Children also help the family sell seafood to tourists or restaurants. Sometimes they ask for alms.

Learning to read

Most Bajau lack official papers, and this means their children are unable to attend public schools. A local teacher, Alee, established a school for stateless children on Mabul Island five years ago, and one of Agunnay’s sons currently attends Alee’s lessons.

In the beginning, Alee had only four pupils, but now the number of students attending his lessons, which take place at 8pm every night (except Thursday), has grown to 80.

“It is very important for Bajau children to start learning, as this is the only way for them to get jobs in the future and make a living if they cannot fish anymore,” Alee explains.

Countless numbers of Bajau children are still without education, however, and while NGOs and other organizations are working on trying to get more Bajau Laut educated by encouraging their children into school, in the end, it’s still their choice.

“My grandchildren started crying when we took them to school. They were afraid. So the best is just to stay on the boat and go fishing together,” Bungsali says. “Also, when we see tourists in Semporna, we send kids to beg for money.”

Alee, the only teacher at the school. He started working with Baja Laut’s undocumented children five years ago.
In the evenings, when the heat subsides, Mabul Island children gather at a school for undocumented Sama Dilaut offspring.

Sharing water with tourists

Famed for its majestic coral reefs and marine life, divers flock to Semporna from around the world. Tourism is very important to the Semporna region, which is famous for its world-class diving spots. The most famous of these is Sipadan Island, which was glorified by Jacques Cousteau. The incredible biodiversity of its waters, as well as the opportunity that they provide for the viewing of endangered species, drive diving enthusiast to Semporna and the islands.

Tourism also affects the Sama Dilaut. Many of them see tourists as a source of income – they try to sell seafood to tourists and resorts or send their children to beg for money. While searching for seafood, the children always check the water around the resorts for leftovers that restaurants have thrown away.

As you walk around Mabul Island, you are immediately struck by the disparity that exists between the overcrowded areas inhabited by the Bajau and Sulu and the wide-open luxury of the holiday resorts. In the latter, tourist huts are scattered sparingly and come replete with empty beaches and spotless plant-lined paths. These resorts are not without their impact, however, as owing to their lack of proper sewage systems, they are as responsible as the Sama Dilaut for the pollution of the waters.

Some resorts, however, take their environmental responsibilities seriously and run programs to clean beaches and coral reefs and preserve sharks, turtles, and other threatened species. They also provide education and employment for some of the Sama Dilaut, and further financial support is given to the community by the resorts and the tourists who buy their fish. This is not without its downside, though, as it is overfishing and exploitative fishing methods that have caused many of the area’s problems. This is why some of the resorts have even made the decision not to serve seafood, arguing that this is the only way to preserve the ocean. It is the Bajau Laut who again ultimately suffer, however, as they lose an essential part of their income.

“Tourists should be conscious and choose resorts that not only take money for profit but also do something good for the area in return. If we destroy the environment here, the tourists won’t come and we’ll lose our income. We have to be responsible and take care of the environment,” says Rohan Perkins, manager and environmental officer at the diving center and beach resort on Mabul Island.

The island is today overpopulated, leading to rumors that the Sama Dilaut will soon be resettled. Some argue that this will benefit the island and its environment, while others maintain that talk of resettlement is motivated simply by a desire on the part of the tourists to have a holiday free of the unsightly presence of the poor, struggling Sama Dilaut. But action has yet to be taken, leaving the Sama Dilaut on the island unsure of their future. “It is a shame that tourists still go there, where human rights of local people are not respected,” Abrahamsson says.

Environmental issues and challenges

Beautiful and colorful the coral reef and marine life underwater may be, but the situation on shore is a different matter entirely. Much of the island’s beaches are littered with rubbish and detritus, and the problem of pollution is only getting worse.

“After we eat, we just drop everything into the water. We Bajau people just live like that,” Bungsali remarks. This did not present a problem in the past, when all the Sama Dilaut had to throw away was organic waste, but now, with their increasing consumption of modern products, they dispose of plastic, aluminum, and other hazardous waste in the same way. This has created a major problem for the local environment, a problem that the Sama Dilaut, because of their lack of education, remain unaware of.

“They do not have much knowledge about the impact their waste has on their environment. But on the other hand, I am not sure that they would care if they knew about it because they have other things to focus on in their everyday struggle,” Abrahamsson says.

Exploitive fishing – the use of cyanide and dynamite, for example – was very popular until a few years ago. This seriously damaged both the surrounding coral reefs and the long-term health of local fishery resources. Cyanide and dynamite have now been prohibited, although, as locals report, explosions can still be heard from time to time. Such practices are not only harmful to marine life and reefs, but also to the fishermen themselves – some have suffered terrible injuries or even death.

Agunnay was one of the fishermen who used cyanide and dynamite to increase the size of his catch. “I tried cyanide and dynamite fishing before, when I was not married and I did not have children. I was happy because I could catch a lot of fish. But also a lot of fish died and that wasn’t right. Later I started to think about what would happen to my wife and my kids if the dynamite exploded in my hands. I became afraid and I don’t use it anymore.”

As coral fish become harder to find, the Sama Dilaut are forced further out into the ocean to look for food. “The weather has also become unpredictable. The monsoon starts later, there are long dry intervals during monsoon, and it rains more during the dry season, which makes it difficult for the Bajau Laut to predict conditions and go fishing,” says Ang Kian Chang, a dive operator and owner of a resort on Mabul Island. As Agunnay has said, the Bajau have existed for as long as the ocean. Destroying it means destroying the Bajau’s future.

The coast of Semporna is littered with rubbish from the city and the ocean.
Langring lies at the back of the boat. The hole at his feet - a toilet from which everything goes directly into the water.

Bajau Laut, who live in boats and remote islands, sometimes arrive in the town of Semporna located on Borneo island. Here they sell their catches and handicrafts, and buy a wider variety of food, clothing or household goods.

Children help parents prepare for fishing by making "bombs" from scraps of polyethylene bags and squid ink, which is believed to attract tuna.
Bamasia washes a boat floating near Meiga Island.

Muddy future

Whereas a hundred years ago, Sampora was surrounded by Sama Dilaut boats, today there are but a few scattered across the water. Their inhabitants are those who still fear life on the land, preferring their traditional boat-bound ways. They only venture onto land when necessary: for food or other provisions.

“Five more years, and there are not going to be any Bajau Laut boats,” says Chang. But Abrahamsson doesn’t completely agree. “If there is fish, I think that Sama Dilaut will stay on their boats for a long time to come. On the other hand, if Sama Dilaut begin to be respected by the state, it is also plausible that their children – if they start attending school – will give up their old lifestyle when they get older.” He adds, “The biggest threat to their culture is poverty. If they become too poor, they will lose much of their culture, for example, their traditional wedding ceremonies.”

“Whatever happens, Sama Dilaut should be given the power to decide their own future. In order to give them free hand to decide, they must be given access to land or, in this case, water. It is also very important to save the marine environment, and here Sama Dilaut, Malaysian state, fish traders and consumers, NGOs, diving operators and resort owners must co-operate,” Abrahamsson says.

“Bajau cannot move on. We know only this kind of life. We need to go fishing for food. We can also sell our catch or our handcrafts to buy some other food. But we don’t have much knowledge, we cannot move on, because the sea and fishing is all we know,” Bungsali explains. “I wouldn’t even want to go to live there.” He points to the land. “It scares me. I wouldn’t feel free.”

But Agunnay and his wife believe they will be able to change their life. One thing will always remain the same, though – their love of the ocean. “I want to change my life, but I could not forget the ocean. I would like to have my own business, to be a big boss, to earn more money, buy fish from other fishermen and open a store. But even if I changed my life and became a big boss, I could not forget where I belonged, what my father’s job was. My life is the ocean.”

In the early morning, Shigesh gets dressed and Sempula urinates overboard while the remaining family members are still asleep.

Batu, Shigesh and Siboto sail to the town of Semporna to get some water.

Semporna Market, where the inhabitants of all the surrounding islands and boats come to exchange or sell their catches and handicrafts, and buy the necessary items or food.

Author Berta Tilmantaitė, Minjul and his friends off the coast of Mabul Island.
This photo history was previously published in the National Geographic magazine.

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Previously parts of this story were published by National Geographic, Rhythms Monthly, Great Ocean Querterly, Al Jazeera and CCTV (Assignment Asia).