Sea is the lifeline of the Bajau nomads as their lives revolve around the undulating waves that have kept them going for generations. They spend their whole lives at sea and go to land only to avail some essential services.
The Bajaus are born and brought up in the middle of the sea and this relationship with waters shapes them into expert swimmers. They have an uncanny knack to dive deep into the sea by holding their breath for long and fishing. These sea gypsies live in the biodiversity-rich Coral Triangle spread across the tropical waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.
The triangle spread across 2.3 million square miles in the western Pacific Ocean is a diverse marine habitat and nurtures different species of sharks, turtles, tuna, whales and reef fish and other marine life.
The region is home to 76% of the world's reef-building coral species and more than 3,000 varieties of fish including the whale shark, the largest fish, and coelacanth. Moreover, six of the seven sea turtles can also be found in this species-rich ecosystem.
Though the natural riches of the Coral Triangle are under serious threat, the Bajaus are continuing with their fishing activities in the region. The marine wealth of the triangle is in danger as the sea gypsies use dynamite and cyanide for fishing. Traditionally, the Bajaus are experts in spearfishing and also adept in catching octopus and fish from deep waters. Usually, they try to net fish without killing them as such catch fetches a higher price in the market. The Bajaus do earn handsomely as they sell fish to Hong Kong-based fishing companies. And these companies distribute chemicals and fishing equipment to the sea nomads so that more fish are caught.
But at times the Bajaus are not able to net enough fish to repay the debt and they are forced to fish more resulting in depletion of the marine life. Many organizations including Conservation International are creating awareness among the Bajaus about the importance of sustainable fishing with the hope that they would give preference to conserving the wealth provided by nature.
The Bajaus spend their whole lives on indigenous boats, known as ‘lepa-lepa’, at sea and would step on to land only to sell their catch. The ‘lepa-lepa’ boats are divided into three portions. The rear part will house kitchen, the middle portion is used for taking rest and the front part to carry out fishing activities.
Presently, the Bajaus have started to build houses, mostly stilt houses, on land. It is expected that the sea nomads would shift their place of residence from sea to land in the near future. Moreover, the Indonesian government has also taken the initiative and shifted many Bajaus to houses on the land. There had been instances of friction with other countries as the Bajaus inadvertently cross the international maritime boundaries during fishing.
The life on land is pretty tough for these sea gypsies as their culture is quite different from other tribes and communities. In a bid to secure their future, the youngsters belonging to the Bajau community are leaving behind their conventional life and seeking job on boats in big cities. With the new generation seeking greener pastures in cities, the elderly persons of the Bajau tribe would be the last ones living at sea following the tradition.