For a Living Ocean

Bajau Kids Swim with the Turtles

In Eastern Kalimantan, Borneo, Bajau Laut have been living for generations. Originally they arrived on houseboats from the Sulu Sea.

I visited Derawan Islands where I stayed for one week. It is a tourist paradise with excellent diving spots and fascinating sea creatures as manta rays and hawksbill sea turtles. Most people on the islands are Bajau and they speak more or less the same dialect as in Semporna, Malaysia. I was pleased to see that most children still speak Sinama – and they were spending their afternoons swimming and playing next to sea turtles in the shallow waters.

Derawan Islands consist of a large number of island, of whom two are inhabited – Pulau Derawan and Pulau Maratua. The islands are far from as exploited as for example Mabul in Semporna, and all resorts are owned and run by local people.

One of the islands, Sanalaki, is well-known for their hawksbill turtles and coral manta ray . Here visitors can swim with the giant rays and watch the turtles when they enter the beach at night laying their eggs. On the island of Kakaban you can also find a lake full of jellyfish – but they are completely harmless.

Recently, many Sama Dilaut used to stay in the area, moving between Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia in search for fishing grounds. But today there are no nomads left, as the Indonesian government repeatedly have confiscated their boats and sent them back to Malaysia. They are not welcome as they lack legal papers.

The local people control the islands – they where empty when Bajau settled here for more than 100 years ago. “I want Sanalaki to become as Sipadan in Malaysia”, one local Bajau dive operator told me, “a tourist heaven and a sanctuary”.

The Derawan Islands are also important for the Indonesian live fish trade. From here, great numbers of lobster and groupers are transported to Surabaya on Java and Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia. Much of the fish end up on luxury restaurants in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

After Derawan I am heading towards Southeast Sulawesi where I will visit Bajo Laut, who have lived in the area for hundreds of years. They are distant relatives to Bajau Laut in the Sulu Sea, but much of their lifestyle are the same. Once again I will visit the village Topa which I went to almost two years ago – following the footsteps of Erika Schagatay, who was there for more than 20 years ago.

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