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Bajau in Sulawesi – Boat life, Diving and Traditional Fishing Methods

For three weeks I have been travelling in Sulawesi, Indonesia, where I have visited three different Bajau communities. In the beginning I was travelling with professor Erika Schagatay (Department of Health Sciences) who re-visited a Bajau community in Kamaru, Buton, after 26 years.

“The equipment has changed, but many of the houses and the boats look just like before”, ErikaSchagatay said. ”Today many spearfishers use fins and modern masks which they didn’t do in the 1980’s”. Sometimes they also dive using a compressor, in addition to the more common breath-hold diving.  During the stay we measured the lung capacity of some of the divers and found that the divers have a big lung capacity for their height compared to people in the wider community who do not live as divers.

Sanpela – A Bajau Community in the Heart of a National park

In the Bajau community Sanpela in Wakatobi many traditional fishing methods are still used, and equipment is still mostly only wooden goggles. Many households do not have a boat with engine and use only paddle and sails. Also women are fishing and many of them do regularly dive for seashell, trepang and clams in shallow waters.

One common fishing method is called “ngambaj” in which several fishing boats gather and use nets to surrond coral fish while others hits the water and try to chase the fish against the net. They are also using harpoons to spear bigger fish surrounded by the nets. This fishing method is also used in the Philippines and Malaysia – but I have never witnessed a more succesful “ngambaj” than in Sanpela where each fisherman got more than 10 kilo of fish. Here, in the Wakatobi National Park fish is plenty and many of the corals are intact.

WWF Indonesia has worked a lot in the area to promote traditional fishing methods and educate people on the vulnerability of the marine ecosystems. In other parts of Sulawesi fish bombs and cyanide are common, but in Wakatobi these methods are very rare nowadays.

Pongka – They Stay Several Weeks at Sea at a Time

In Torosiaje – a Bajau village highlighed by the British award-winning photojournalist James Morgan, many Bajau still do “pongka”. They stay at sea for weeks and sleep in their boat (”lepa”). When I was there a few fishermen were planning for longer fishing trips to remote islands. However, no one here is still living permanently in the boat and it seems unlikely that there still are Bajau boat nomads left in Sulawesi. Pongka is a way of life depicted in the German/French movie Sulawesi, the last See nomads.

Bajau – one of the Most Widespread Peoples of Southeast Asia

In Sulawesi there are approximately 150 Bajau communities, according to the study Mapping Indonesian Bajau Communities in Sulawesi. There are also plenty of Bajau communities in such scattered islands as East Java, West Nusa Tenggara, Molucca and Papua. Between these communities language differs only slightly, and it has been found that not less than 90 % of the words used in the Bajau communities in Sulawesi are identical – unlike in the Sulu Sea, Philippines, where dialects are plenty. In Sulu, every single island can has its own Bajau (Sinama) dialect.

The Bajau is one of the most spread indigenous peoples in Sotheast Asia, but they are always a minority population. They live in pockets throughout Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei and in the eastern part of Malaysia. It is their historical nomadic lifestyle and search for vibrant coral reefs with good fishing and trade that have made them so widespread.

Stateless Sama Dilaut Boat Nomads Put in Indonesian Camp

676 Sama Dilaut and have been put in a camp for illegal fishermen in Tanjung Batu in Indonesia. They came in their houseboats from Semporna, from where thay had been chased away by the Malaysian authorities because they have no legal documents and are thought to distrurb the tourists.Di Lao Berau Post

At the same time, the newly elected government in Indonesia wants to stop illegal fishermen and they have made several raids in the ocean outside of Kalimantan where hundreds of boats have been seized (among them the Sama houseboats).

The Sama Dilaut were initially supposed to be released and sent back to Malaysian waters on December 17 and, but Malaysia and Indonesia are still arguing about who’s responsibility it is to handle the problem. As most Sama Dilaut are stateless no one wants to take the responsibility. Sama nomads are stuck between two national states – even if they have moved into these waters for centuries

Berau Post and a Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenskan, have reported from the incident but others seem to be silent. They have been in the camp for over a month.

A Two-Month Long Trip in Southeast Asia Starts

For two months I will be travelling in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines where I will be living with the sea nomads Bajau Laut. It will be a time of fishing, diving and ethnography!

In the beginning, I will travel with Professor Erika Schagatay at Mid Sweden University in Sulawesi, Indonesia, who will visit the same Bajau village as she visited in 1988. We will also visit the Tukangbesi islands outside of Sulawesi and learn more about Sama diving skills.

Article in Human Evolution – an international Journal

In the aftermath of the conference Human Evolution Past, Present & Future – Anthropological, Medical & Nutritional Considerations in 2013 the journal Human Evolution – an International Journal decided that they would bring out a special issue on the Aquatic ape hypothesis. I and professor Erika Schagatay submitted an article titled A Living Based on Breath-Hold Diving in the Bajau Laut, where we present new dive data that has been measured during 2013.

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The conclusion of our paper is that there is potential in man to live a life on subsistence diving, which is possible thanks to the strong human diving response and good swimming ability. The important thing for subsistence divers are not to stay as long as possible in the water on any given dive, but to maximize the bottom time during a longer time of diving.

Man’s ability to live from and in water is drastically different from our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. However, several human characteristics such as absence of body hair, a strong diving response and a large spleen are also present in marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. It is also important to keep in mind that all aquatic mammals previously lived on land. The idea that ealso humans have spent a long time close to water during her evolution is not too far-fetched after all.

You can read the full article here: A Living Based on Breath-Hold diving in the Bajau Laut Diving.

Children Under 5 die due to Infections Next to Snorkeling Tourists

The Sama girl Nurlyn lives in a traditional houseboat (lepa) in Semporna. Her family is originally from the Philippines, from where they fled pirates and conflicts. It was 50 years ago – but now they are afraid of being sent back. They have no papers, no identification documents.

“I’m good at rowing a boat”, Nurlyn says in an article written by the Danish journalist Pia Kainø Jensen which was published in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen on July 18. “I am also a great swimmer and I can dive underwater just like the boys, and I can catch fish with spears. But I can not dive as deep as my father. My mother can also dive.”

You can see the front page of  the magazine here (Mød havfolket) and read the article here: De har hjemme på havet (Danish). Many of the images in the article have been taken by me during my travels to Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Recently, another Sama girl from Mabul Island, Semporna, Malaysia, has become famous thanks to this YouTube clip where she rescues a boat from sinking and helps Asian tourists (the video has been viewed more than 2.4 million times):

Nurlyn and the girl on the boat are two of many Bajau Laut in Semporna lacking legal papers. They are in fact stateless: they can’t attend school, they have no right to medical care and they get no support from the government. On many islands, like on Mabul Island, they live next to luxurious tourist resorts. Here, children under 5 die due to infections next to snorkeling tourists from all over the world.

Fire in Downtown Davao – Hundreds of Sama are Homeless

A large fire broke out on Friday night in Isla Verde, Davao City. The fire appears to have started in a kitchen in the community that largely consists of wooden houses. The fire spread quickly and was not under control until six hours later.

Isla Verde consists the largest Sama Community in Davao City, many of them are now homeless. The residents have been evacuated to a local school. One person has been reported dead. Manila Bulletin: Fire leaves thousands homeless in Davao City (2014-04-05)

The Sama community of Matina Aplaya was not affected.

Semporna – Renassiance of the Houseboat

At year-end, I and photographer Andreas Ragnatsson went to the Philippines and Malaysia to meet Sama Dilaut. In Davao, the Philippines, we spearfished with superb divers. In Semporna, Malaysia, we visited the islands of Bodgaya, Mabul, Sibuan and Maiga and talked to them who are still living on their “lepa” houseboats.

 

 

Different groups of Sama Dilaut

Sama Dilaut in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia can be divided into four groups, of which today only two are living on boats. The northernmost group is Sama Dilaut from Zamboanga, Basilan and Jolo, who are generally known as “Badjao” in the Philippines . They live today scattered over large parts of the Philippines, (eg, Davao, Manila, Cebu) where they fled after unrest in the Sulu Sea. None of them live on house boats today, but many still make a living from fishing and live along the shorelines.

The largest group of boat nomads is Sama Dilaut from Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines . Most of these, however, have fled to Sabah, Malaysia, where many still live on their house boats. Today, there are no nomads left in Tawi-Tawi because of the unsecure situation in the region. Many Sama Dilaut house-dwellers in Semporna told me that they want to return to their boat-dwelling lifestyle, which make them more mobile and give them better fishing opportunities. For many it is only a matter of money – if they would afford it they would build a houseboat and return to the sea.

A closely related group to Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi is Sama Dilaut of Sitankai, Philippines, that used to live on the sea. Many of these people came to Semporna in the 60’s on their houseboats where they established the village Bangaw Bangaw. Today all of them live in houses

The fourth group is Sama Dilaut of Indonesia, who generally are called Indonesian Bajau. They speak a slightly different dialect than their  relatives in the Sulu Sea but most words that are related to the sea are identical, as for example “amessi” (hook-and-line fishing), “amana” (speargun fishing) and “amosaj” (to paddle). Indonesian Bajau live over large parts of Sulawesi and even as far south as Flores. Today, only few Indonesian Bajau live on house boats and the number decreaces. Only ten years ago many Indonesian Bajau were boat-dwellers along the eastern coast of Sulawesi (eg, Lasolo) but today there are only few nomads in the Togian Gulf left.

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