For a Living Ocean


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:

Philippine Records in Sama Freediving Contest

The winner of the Sama Freediving Contest, Juli Musuari reached 260 feet, or 79 meters. It is the deepest dive ever by a diver from the Philippines. Sama diving capabilities have been known for a long time, but it is not until now their dives have been measured by professional standards.

Totally 18 Sama from the Davao region participated in the contest, of whom five were from Matina Aplaya. Nasahali Musahali, a man from Matina Aplya, finished second, reaching 242 feet, or 72 meters.

The contestants were diving in the traditional Sama way, called Rod and Line. They were using rods of between 3-7 kilo to descend and were then pulled up by two partners on the boat. The competition consisted of three rounds. For information on all dives please visit Kadayawan Sama Freediving Contest 2013.

Here you can see the Silver Dive by Nasahali Musahali. As most other Sama in Davao he is originally from Zamboanga.

Sama Freediving Contest

On August 15th Freediving Philippines are organizing a Sama freediving contest in Davao City. It will be held during the annual Kadayawan festival, that highlights the 11 indigenous tribes of Davao.

Sama Frediving Contest

“Bajau are also indigenous to the Davao region”, writes Luke Schroeder on who is one of the organizers of the event. Totally 23 men are participating in the contest, all of whom have dived more than 80 feet. Ten men from the Sama Community of Matina Aplaya are participating.

Goals of the Event (from

*Increase awareness in the Davao area about the Sama tribe. Many government offices and schools are unaware that the Sama are indigenous to the Davao region.
*Honor the Sama people. Overall perception of the Sama people in urban areas of the Filipinos is in many cases degrading towards them. Sama are a peace loving people and very hard working. We would like to make this known.
*Set national records for the sport of freediving.
*Provide opporOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtunities for a few exceptionally skilled Sama divers.

Current Philippine Records (from
Static Apnea- 3:06 minutes by Villongco Zenon Alejandro Dario
Free Immersion- 32 meters by Carmelo Navarro

Lucy – Was She Living in a Lake Margin?

In the end of June I went to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were I visited the National Museum. Here the remnants of the world’s most famous fossil, Lucy, can be found. The skeleton is 40% complete and is estimated to be 3.2 million years old.

Lucy was discovered in 1974 near Hadar in Ethiopia, by Donald Johanson and his colleague Maurice Taieb. She was classified as Australopithecus afarensis.Donald Johanson and others have suggested that Lucy had been living in a mosaic environment (forests, grasslands, lakes). However, the fossil of Lucy was found next to crocodile and turtle eggs and crab claws (Johanson & Taieb 1976).

Today the excavation site lies in a dessert, but 3, 2 million years ago the area were green and flourishing. Many scientists have suggested that Lucy fell in to a lake after she died – but perhaps lake margins was the biotope she preferred? Probably she was actually feeding from the lake.

Throughout the years, the so called Aquatic Ape Theory has been ridiculed – even if the most famous fossil was found next to crocodile eggs and crab claws.

However, the distinct adaptation to a water-based lifestyle took place later. Homo Erectus was probably much more adapted to an littoral environment than her Australopithecine forefathers – as a swimmer and free-diver (see earlier posts).

In the National Museum of Ethiopia you can also find see the skulls of Omo 1 and Omo 2, the oldest fossils of Homo Sapiens ever found. They are estimated to be around 190 000 years old. Today, the Omo Valley of Ethiopia is one of the most unique places on earth because of the wide variety of people.


Johanson, D.C., and Taieb, M., 1976, Plio-Pleistocene hominid discoveries in Hadar, Ethiopia: Nature, v. 260, p. 293–297


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 437 other followers