Visitors to Mabul Island in Borneo flock to witness some of the most diverse marine life remaining in the world. But whilst there, they are almost guaranteed to meet another mysterious community that call the sea home: The Bajau Laut.
words and photographs by Sally Fox, feature photograph by Jakko Wilschut
The Bajau Laut, Sama or ‘sea gypsies’ are a nomadic people from Mindanao in the Philippines. According to Sama legend, the community are descendants of a Royal Guard, banished to the ocean in search of a Princess lost in a flash flood. Told not to return until they found her, they have been searching the sea ever since.
Following violence and instability in their native region, they drifted to the Malaysian and Indonesian waters surrounding The Coral Triangle. Though they form the second largest ethnic group in the Malaysian state of Sabah, many of them rarely visit land, setting foot on solid ground only to trade fish for water, rice or wood.
The community rely on the ocean for their livelihood. They are the most proficient freedivers in the world. Holding their breath for several minutes at a time, they are able to swim to depths of 30 metres. Many have their eardrums pierced as children to facilitate this. It has even been suggested that the group have developed larger spleens in response to oxygen deprivation. Skilled craftspeople, the community hand make their own spear guns, goggles and even boats. In the days of Malay Sultans, their superior navigational abilities meant that they were relied upon to establish and protect trade routes throughout Southeast Asia.
Most hold religious beliefs that mix Islam with a spiritual practice that revolves around the tides, reefs and mangroves. Though many Sama people have settled in stilt-house villages on the coast, an estimated 1000 still live on the water. Communities of two to six families gather to form small flotillas at a significant spot, near a fresh water source or a site of spiritual significance.
Traditional boats are no bigger than 10 x 2 metres, a space which hosts all of life’s rituals, from birth to death. With fires lit in the stern and space for sleeping, daily routines are conducted without breaching the boat’s perimeter.
Education is limited. Most Bajau Laut do not possess citizenship, and so do not have access to the school system of the nation they live on the margins of. Ill-health is common and life expectancy is limited. Though some dive using rudimentary compressors, most do not realise the dangers of prolonged exposure to underwater pressure. Decompression sickness is rife, as are hearing problems due to the practice of bursting eardrums.
Life for the Bajau Laut has not changed much in 1000 years, the period for which they are estimated to have been nomadic. Until recently, that is.
The rampant growth of the live fishing industry, reportedly worth US$800 million, is changing this traditional occupation. The Bajau Laut are often employed by big gangs who set unrealistic catch targets. Couple that with a decline in marine life in the area due to pollution and over-fishing, and the Sama have begun to eschew their goggles and spears in favour of dynamite and cyanide. As well as stunning fish, this technique decimates surrounding coral and puts the fisherman’s life in danger.
But this isn’t the only threat to the Sama’s traditional way of life. In July 2018, a tourist posted footage shot on a tour boat visiting a sea gypsy village. The viral video shows Sama women and children boarding the boat and snatching food the tourists were asked to bring as gifts by the tour operator. The resulting storm raised some challenging questions. The Sabah Tourist Board reprimanded the tour operator, saying that they do not want to promote the community as a ‘tourism product’. They asked that future tours do not visit the Sama people and that tourists do not bring ‘handouts’, in case the Sama community come to rely on them.
Kerino Jalani, the chairman of the Tour Operators Association in nearby Semporna, disagrees with this policy. Keen to continue allowing tourists to witness this unique way of life, he believes it is the behaviour of the Bajau Laut themselves that must change. He thinks that they need to be ‘educated’ in how to behave around tourists to ‘maintain harmony.’
Hearing the opinions of the Bajau Laut themselves is challenging. There is no official community leader to act as a spokesperson for this disparate and shy people, who often only speak a few words of the Malaysian national language Bahasa. It appears that the younger generation at least wants to integrate and benefit from the tourism boom in the region. They are migrating towards coastal settlements and seeking employment in the resorts that cluster on Mabul Island. Even those that remain on the ocean are modernising, with mass-produced boats replacing hand made ones as a more spacious and robust form of accommodation.
There is a fear that as the Bajau Laut modernise, their ancient ways of life will be lost. In the interest of preventing this, organisations such as the WWF and Conservation International have created education programmes that encourage the survival of traditional fishing methods and no-fish zones to allow supplies to replenish. An annual festival, the Regatta Lepa, honours the ancestral boat building skills of the Bajau Laut, another attempt to preserve their heritage.
But with such tokenised celebration of tradition, the Bajau Laut risk becoming like many other indigenous or ancient communities the world over: a way of life commodified for tourists. The outcome of which is often that traditions are upheld for show, even if they no longer serve the community.
Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than on the shores of Mabul Island, with its premium resorts and ostentatious holidaymakers just feet away from families living in relative poverty. No Tourist Board policy will provide a quick solution for this ongoing problem. Recognising the Bajau Laut as citizens with rights and ownership of the sea they inhabit would be a strong starting point to ensure harmony and avoid exploitation.