Bajau Laut Tribe: Indonesia’s last nomadic sea gypsies

Generations of living underwater have endowed the Bajau Sea Gypsies with mysterious abilities to see clearly without goggles and reduce oxygen consumption to a tiny fraction of normal levels. Vanishing stocks from dynamite fishing and cyanide threatens centuries-old culture of Sulawesi’s gypsy sea people, the Bajau Laut have lived almost entirely at sea for centuries. They are some of the last true nomads of the ocean. They have lived on the sea for centuries, but overfishing now threatens the unique culture of the nomadic ocean dwellers known as the Bajau Laut.

Found on Indonesia’s southern Sulawesi island, the Bajau have roamed its waters for at least 400 years, living on boats or in stilt villages out at sea, and relying on its resources for subsistence. But because of extensive fishing, the once bountiful ocean can no longer support the Bajau’s aquatic way of life.

Marine biologists and divers from around the world are drawn to Wakatobi, a three-island complex off the Sulawesi coast. In the past, Bajaus lived for months at a time on longboats called lepa lepa. While some still retain this nomadic marine existence, an increasing number now live in stilt communities, or have given up sea-based life altogether and moved to coastal cities.

The Bajau are excellent free-divers. Unlike most fishermen who float above their prey, the Bajau dive and walk the ocean’s floor to hunt fish and octopi with homemade spear-guns. Wearing wooden goggles and no fins, Bajaus dive up to 20 metres deep and remain underwater for as long as five minutes on a single breath.

Bajau children destined to be spear-gun fishermen have their eardrums pierced when they are young so they will not burst later from water pressure while diving.  The Bajaus are Sunni Muslims, but many still believe in the spirit world of the sea, which must be appeased through rituals and offerings.

In one of the few English books about Southeast Sulawesi, The Mysteries of the Islands of Buton, author Caleb Coppenger notes the Bajau traditionally throw the placenta of a newborn child in the ocean. Villagers believe they should protect the sea as “it is the home of their sibling”. With an estimated population of 800,000, the various Southeast Asian nomadic sea tribes range from the Philippines and Malaysia, through eastern Indonesia and all the way up to Myanmar.

Bajau children swim before they walk, learning to steer canoes as their land-based counterparts learn to ride bicycles. The Bajau’s watery realm roughly coincides with the famed “coral triangle”, home to a third of the world’s coral reefs where more than 3,000 species of fish swim.

To survive as a community, the Bajau will have to change their ways. The tribe’s maritime lore has been passed on orally from generation to generation, requiring little in the way of formal education. However, that is changing as more of the sea nomads settle on ground.

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