The ocean covers a staggering 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, engulfing many communities the world is oblivious to. Living in the coral seas between Borneo and the Philippines, are communities who may live more intimately with the ocean than any other culture on Earth. With an entirely seaborne lifestyle, this indigenous ethnic group of people are known as the Bajau. Building their lives in the middle of the sea, often many kilometres from land, the ocean may have a profound influence on every aspect of their existence.
The majority of Bajau people of Maritime Southeast Asia live in the Philippines and surrounding islands of Malaysia and Borneo. The Bajau, who live on houses on stilts or house boats, have almost completely severed their ties with the land. They even measure the passage of time by the rhythm of the tides rather than conventional minutes and hours. Visiting the land very rarely, every member of this unique community has a close relationship with the ocean instead.
Going back 200 years ago, Bajau people lived on land, particularly in Malaysia’s eastern state, Sabah. They began making their living from fishing and today, they have adapted their lifestyle between nomadic and sedentary, housed in villages on the water. Bajau people live as a close tribe community, with usually six to twelve houses in a tribal group. The Bajau may only visit land to fetch firewood and fresh drinking water, trade for rice and fuel or to mend their boats.
As the ocean may provide almost everything they need, they live a very content and interesting lifestyle. They eat a bewildering variety of seafood that has been hunted by members of the community- often free-diving using only goggles and handmade spears. In fact, the Bajau are noted for their exceptional abilities in free-diving, with physical adaptations in sight and breath. In search of a single fish, Bajau’s best free-divers may be able to dive to the depths of over 20 metres and stay there for several minutes on a single breath.
Furthermore, some Bajau may even intentionally rupture their eardrums at an early age in order to facilitate diving and hunting at sea. Some of the children also adapt to an aquatic way of life from a very young age. The sea and the boat is the playground for the Bajau children. With most being born at sea and spending so much of their time under the sea, many of their eyes adjust to focus better underwater. Children are taught all aspects of seaborne living: how to hunt, cook, fish, wash and build.
In the vast Southeast Asian oceans, there are many sub-groups of Bajau people, named after the place or island they have lived in. Although they are all called Bajau, each sub-group has their own unique language, cultures and tradition. Some sub-groups are able to understand the languages of other sub-groups, with the general native language is Bahasa Bajau or Sinama. However with approximately ten sub-groups, such as Sama and Tabawan, it is quite uncommon for communities to ever encounter each other.
Although they live on the sea, they often still partake in a common faith, adorning their seaborne lifestyle with religious celebrations, worships and offerings. With remnants of traditional pre-Islamic beliefs, the Bajau often sail ‘spirit boats’ into the open seas to cast unwanted spirits away from their community and regularly give offerings of thanks to their God of the Sea- Omboh Dilaut. Although some Islamic Bajau communities have built mosques on stilts, other communities must rely on the shore-based ones.
From old to young, the Bajau are regarded as colourful, festive and musical people. Being seaborne, in their opinion, enhances and improves all aspects of living. The Bajau are undoubtedly extraordinary people and today, they are both the ultimate living proof of how far people might be able to push our bodies to an aquatic life, and the ideal example of how relationships with the sea may be so beneficial.
What aspect of aquatic life would you most like to experience?