Last of the Sea Nomads

Marine nomads, the Bajau Laut, have lived in the waters of the Coral Triangle for centuries but their way of life and their uniquely intimate relationship with the ocean is being destroyed.

Destructive fishing techniques are common practice amongst the coastal populations of the Coral Triangle.

The favoured methods are homemade fertiliser bombs and potassium cyanide, which have not only decimated reefs in the largest and most diverse marine bio-region in the world but destroyed countless human lives as well.

Of all these communities, the Bajau Laut have perhaps suffered the most. The Bajau Laut are some of the last true marine nomads. An ethnic group of Malay origin, they have for centuries lived out their lives almost entirely at sea, plying a tract of ocean between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.

In the last few decades, many have been forced to settle permanently on land, but a dwindling number still call the ocean home, living on long boats known as lepa lepa. Traditionally, they fish with nets and lines and are expert free divers, going to improbable depths in search of pearls and sea cucumbers or to hunt with handmade spear guns.

But these traditional techniques have been largely replaced by cyanide and dynamite fishing, practices that are being driven predominantly by the live fish trade—an industry whose global worth is estimated at US $1 billion. The trade’s epicentre is Hong Kong, while Indonesia supplies most of the fish, accounting for nearly 50% of all imports. Target species are grouper and Napoleon wrasse, reef species key to the preservation of coral ecosystems.

Traditional Bajau cosmology forms a syncretism of animism and Islam, and reveals a complex relationship with the ocean, which for them is a multifarious and living entity. Spirits live in the currents and tides, in the coral reefs and mangroves.

My point of interest is the potential for dovetailing the Bajau’s uniquely intimate understanding of the ocean with wider marine conservation strategies in order to facilitate them in conserving, rather than, destroying their culture and the spectacular marine environments they have called home for centuries.

This is a collection of traditional, handmade Bajau lepa lepa boats off the coast of Pulau Bangko. More and more Bajau are abandoning their traditional nomadic lifestyle to settle in permanent homes in stilt villages, but a dwindling few still choose to live the majority of their lives at sea.

In the photograph below, you see Ibu Diana Botutihe, one of the few remaining people in the world to have lived her entire life at sea, visiting land only intermittently and as a matter of necessity in order to trade fish for rice, water and other staples. The current generation of Bajau may be the last individuals to spend their entire lives at sea.

There is no doubt that some incredibly important knowledge is in danger of dying out with them, knowledge that could play an important role in preserving the Coral Triangle and the world’s reefs.

Another of the few individuals in the world to have lived all his life at sea, below you see Amja Kasim Derise cooking dinner at home on his traditional lepa lepa boat. The back of the boat is used for cooking, the middle for sleeping and the front for fishing.

The current generation of Bajau may be the last individuals spend their entire lives at sea, and there is no doubt that some incredibly important knowledge is in danger of dying out with them—knowledge that could play an important role in preserving the biodiversity and ecosystems of both the Coral Triangle and the world’s oceans.

Whilst few young Bajau children are now born on the boats, the ocean is still very much their playground.

And whilst they are getting conflicted messages from their communities, who simultaneously refrain from spitting in the ocean and continue to dynamite its reefs, I still believe they could play a crucial role in the development of western marine conservation practices. Below you see a young Bajau boy, Enal, playing with his pet shark.

Traditionally hunter gatherers, the Bajau have provided for themselves primarily by spearfishing. But as seas are fished out it has become harder for the Bajau to support themselves. Today, in additional to the nets and lines traditionally used for fishing, the Bajau use a handmade ‘pana’ for spearing their catch.

Catching a grouper the traditional way with hook and line, as opposed to cyanide, yields a much smaller catch and radically decreased profits.

Whilst fishermen and export companies are making efforts to continue this more sustainable way of fishing, ultimately there needs to be a change in the nature of the consumer demand. Consumer awareness has the biggest chance of making a sustainable live fish industry a reality.

The Bajau are also adept free divers, descending to improbable depths in search of food and other creatures for trade. Dependent on the sea for their food and livelihoods, they can create delicacies from a wide range of sea creatures.

Among those are stingrays, which the Bajau catch with nets and spears, using the tail section to make a yellow stingray curry.

The sea cucumber, teripang, is also a staple food and valuable export product for the Bajau.

Below you see Jatmin, an octopus specialist, carry his freshly-speared catch back to his boat. The spearguns the Bajau often carry are handy for rooting these creatures out from the holes in which they hide.

While living with the Bajau, I got to know was Moen Lanke, who spends most of the year at sea, sustaining himself almost solely on what the ocean provides. Most days he wrenches clams from the reef with a tyre iron, holding his breath for long minutes underwater while the work is done.

The weight of the iron holds him down on the ocean floor allowing him to run along the reefs. In order to get around the problem of equalising (a technique used by scuba divers to balance the pressure of the inner and outer ear at depth) it is common practice amongst Bajau people to intentionally burst their ear drums at an early age.

Below Ibu Ani looks on as her son, Ramdan, forages the reef for clams. Since Ani’s husband died of the bends whilst compressor diving, she has relied on her young son to forage the reefs and support her during the months they spend at sea together. Here Ramdan is hunting with his handmade pana speargun.

The practice of compressor diving, often in conjunction with cyanide fishing, remains common amongst the Bajau Laut despite being unsustainable, illegal and highly dangerous.

Young Bajau men, and often children, will routinely dive to depths of sixty metres with air pumped down to them through a hose pipe and a regulator—with no knowledge of the dangers inherent in diving to such depths they often ascend far to quickly resulting in nitrogen build up and the bends. Compressor diving is one of the main causes of unnatural death amongst the Bajau communities I have visited.

Below Pak Lapoli demonstrates using cyanide to catch grouper for the live reef fish trade. Potassium Cyanide devastates whole reef colonies as the deadly mixture is dispersed widely by currents and is thought to be more destructive in the long term than bomb fishing.

While I was staying with the Bajau, Pak Usrin demonstrated how to make a fertiliser bomb. He assured me, however, that he stopped bombing reefs back in 2005. Instead, today he gets paid by Reef Check Indonesia to protect his local coral environment.

However, the use of dynamite and cyanide is still leaving Bajau fishermen maimed and killed. It is also destroying the world’s epicentre of coral diversity at a rate which is verging on irreversible.

Ibu Hanisa, pictured below, lost her hands and the sight in one eye when a homemade fertiliser bomb went off in her house. There are human, as well as environmental, costs to destructive fishing practices.

In recent years, the Indonesian government has made a concerted effort to move the traditionally nomadic Bajau into settled communities on land. Basic amenities are scarce however, and the poorest claim that government promises of help have been hollow, leading them to return to the old nomadic way of life at sea. In Torosiaje, many Bajau left their government-provided homes and built this stilt village one kilometer out to sea.

These two children are from a Bajau family who have taken up residence on one of the innumerable uninhabited islands that line the coast of Sulawesi. Unable to eke out a living on land they have turned back to the sea in order to live a self sufficient lifestyle based around ‘cari laut’—searching the ocean.

For the children that are born in Torosiaje, it may be several years before they set foot on dry land. The stilt village has a junior school but older children commute to the mainland. Below young Bajau children wade out from Torosiaje village to look for sea cucumbers and shell fish. The path to self-sufficiency begins at an early age, as children learn the vital skills of foraging in the shallows.

Many elder Bajau now live in such communities, their childhoods living nomadically on the ocean now distant memories.

Despite the majority of Bajau now living in stilt communities and adopting cosmologies more in line with land-based communities, they still build their mosques over the ocean and practice a syncretic belief system that allows for a deep reverence for the ocean and the spirits that are said to inhabit it.

Night time prayers at a mosque on stilts over the ocean. In addition to the more widely practised mainland faith, the Bajau follow their own particular ‘Pamali’—a set of taboos and ritual observances that govern their interaction with the sea.

A significant source of income for the Bajau is selling their catch of grouper to live fish export companies. At the end of the day a Bajau fisherman will take his catch to the ‘cages’—large underwater nets used by the export companies to store grouper and other live reef fish.

Below you see Tadadak, holding a grouper at the cages off Tomian Island. Grouper, along with Napoleon Wrasse, is one of the most highly demanded species in the live fish trade—this is unfortunate, as it is also one of the reef species vital to the preservation of the coral ecosystems.

So how do you protect six million square kilometres of ocean, seventy-six per cent of the world’s coral species, blue whales, dugongs, turtles, pymgy seahorses, and more than a million humans?

The coral triangle is a veritable Amazon of the oceans—home to thousands upon thousands of species of whales, sharks, turtles, tuna and other reef fish, many of which are critically endangered.

The Bajau Laut are one of the last nomadic marine communities in the world. For generations they have plied the waters of the coral triangle, moving between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. But in recent years their way of life has been pushed almost to extinction.

I initially came out to Indonesia in order to explore the potential of incorporating some of the Bajau’s indigenous knowledge of the ocean into marine conservation strategies, but the reality is that the Bajau as much as anybody are now responsible for a lot of the destructive fishing that is taking place in the coral triangle region.

Personally, I feel that in order to enact a genuinely sustainable and meaningful conservation program for the coral triangle region, we need to empower groups such as the Bajau to look after and curate their own environments.


James Morgan

Photojournalist and film maker focused on projects that explore indigenous cosmologies and the human ecology side of the environmental movement.

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