For a Living Ocean

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”, Erika Schagatay 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.

Sampela – 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.

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