For a Living Ocean


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.


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.

Unclear how the Typhoon Haiyan has Affected the Bajau

The typhoon Haiyan hit the central parts of Philippines on November 8, and it is estimated that 5 000 people have died and more than 600 000 have been left homeless.

The last days many people have asked me how my friends in Davao have been affected by the storm – and I am happy to inform you that their village in Matina Aplaya were not hit. I have spoken to some members of the community and they told me that it rained and blew more than usual, but that their lives continue as usual. Davao City is located in the southern part of the Philippines, outside the area where the typhoon hit.

However, there are many Bajau Laut communities on islands like Cebu, Bohol and Leyte that were badly hit by the typhoon. It is not clear how these stilt villages have been affected. Most Bajau Laut in central Philippines are refugees from the long-going unrest in the Sulu Sea, located in the southwestern part of the Philippines. they have lived in poverty for a long time and this disaster has probably worsened their situation


Families of Indigenous Filipino Badjao seek refuge inside a gymnasium turned into an evacuation center during a heavy downpour brought by Typhoon Haiyan in Cebu province, Philippines, Nov. 8. (Jay Rommel Labra/EPA)

A World Famous but still Stateless Bajau Diver

More than 2,8 million people have seen BBC:s production “One breath”, featuring the Bajau Laut diver Sulbin. However, we don’t know much about the man. What reality is he living in? Helen Brunt, an anthropologist who spent eight years (2004-2012) in Sabah has written an article about Sulbin in Minority Voices: Malaysia: The story of an infamous, yet invisible Bajau man.

Sulbin lives on Mabul, one of the most popular tourist islands in the waters of Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia. Here more than 1 000 Bajau Laut have their dwellings (some are living on boats) and most of these people lack legal documents. Hence, they are stateless.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sulbin and his wife have had seven children, but only two of them have survived infancy. Their youngest child were brought to hospital 2011 even if they were facing risk of deportation to the Philippines. The child didn’t survive and Sulbin and his wife recieved a medical bill for the treatment the child had received – they have to pay the same prize as uninsured foreigners.

On Mabul many Bajau Laut children die of childhood diseases, at the same time as tourists spend time in resorts enjoying the corals and night clubs.

Helen Brunt just completed her dissertation, ‘Stateless Stakeholders: Seen But Not Heard? The Case of the Sama Dilaut in Sabah, Malaysia‘, in which she problematize Bajau Laut’s statelessness and the complications to create well-anchored conversation projects. If people are stateless, how can they be fruitful stakeholders in national parks? First they have to be considered as legal human beings.

Here you can see Sulbin in action:


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 440 other followers