For a Living Ocean


My name is Erik Abrahamsson – a Swedish anthropologist, writer and photographer. I am interested in indigenous cultures, maritime lifestyles, and human evolution. This blog is mainly about the sea people Bajau Laut and The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH).


Since 2010, I have studied about the sea nomads Bajau Laut in Southeast Asia, and I have been living with them for an extended period of time in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. I speak one of their dialects, Central Sinama, which is widely spread in Philippines and Malaysia, and the basics of Indonesian Bajo. 

My fieldworks have resulted in academic papers, several articles, radio programs and photo exhibitions about Bajau Laut – “The People of the Sea”.

Bajau Laut, Pulu Gaya, Semporna

Articles in journals:
Schagatay, E., Lodin-Sundström, A., & Abrahamsson, E. (2011)
Underwater working times in two groups of traditional apnea divers in Asia – the Ama and the Bajau Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine, 41 (1): 27-31.

Abrahamsson, E. & Schagatay E. (2014)
A Living Based on Breath-Hold Diving in the Bajau Laut Diving (Human Evolution, Vol. 29, nr 1-3, p. 171-183)

Schagatay, E. , Johansson, O. & Abrahamsson, E. (2017). Diving Response and Lung Capacity of Philippine Sama-Bajau Professional Breath-Hold Divers. Acta Physiologica, vol. 219: S710

Conference papers:
Schagatay, E. & Abrahamsson, E. (2015). Three profitable non-extreme freediving strategies used by the Bajau – marine hunter-gatherer. Paper presented at the 1st International Conference on Sama Dilaut, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines, December 1-3, 2015.

Abrahamsson, E. (2017) Sama Dilaut as Guardians of the Sea ‐ two possible solutions to the migration crisis. Paper presented at the 2nd International conference on Bajau/Sama’ Diaspora and maritime Southeast Asian cultures, Semporna, Malaysia, March 23-26, 2017.

Abrahamsson, E. (2019) Economy of Boat Dwelling Sama Dilaut in Semporna. Paper presented at the International Conference on Bajau Sama Maritime Affairs of Southeast Asia (ICONBAJAU2019), Semporna, Malaysia, April 23-27, 2019.

Poster presented at the Conference on Human Evolution in London, May 2013:
Poster about Sea Nomads in Southeast Asia

One year Master’s thesis in Social Anthropology:
Abrahamsson, E. (2011) Strategies for Maintaining Culture, Identity and Autonomy in Exiled Badjao, a fishing Population without Fish (One year Master thesis, Lund University, Sweden)

Bachelor thesis in Social Anthropology:
Abrahamsson, E. (2008) Vattenapeteorin – Paradigmskifte eller pseudovetenskap? (Bachelor Thesis, Lund University, Sweden)

Media productions:
Livet som havsnomad – en kamp mellan två världar (Magasinet DYK)
Badjao kämpar för sin kultur (Fria Tidningen)
Tillbaka till båtarna (Globala arkivet)
De dyker så djupt ner att trumhinnorna spricker (Sveriges Radio)
Bajau Laut – dernière frontière sur la mer (Le Banian). English version can be found here: Bajau Laut – The Last Frontier at Sea.
Bajau Laut – Fishermen without Fish (

In media:
Lundastudent ska leva med havsnomader (Sydsvenskan)
Erik har levt hos nomader med kärlek till vatten (Sundsvalls Tidning)
Le Triangle de Corail : trésor en péril (Asialyst: un nouveau média spécialisé sur l’Asie)
Born to Swim (Hakai Magazine)
Bajau Laut: Once sea nomads, now stateless (Malaysiakini)
看見溫度:海上的吉普賽人 (RTHK 香港電台)
Bajau Laut – die Letzten ihrer Art? (Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen – SRF)

Photo archives:
Bajau Laut in Southeast Asia (Flickr)

Facebook page:
Bajau Laut – People of the Sea

43 responses

  1. perla

    thanks for share!

    November 24, 2010 at 11:55 pm

  2. anadiomene

    I am Polish translator of Elaine Morgan’s books on AAT. Great to have found this – will follow!

    May 15, 2011 at 7:00 pm

  3. Hi Erik,

    I’m a journalist and filmmaker who lived in Bali for 10 years. I’m currently doing research for a high profile documentary on the Bajau Laut. I’ve already done some editorial stuff on the Bajau Laut of Torosiaje and Wakatobi. The film seeks to illustrate their way of life when they were still living predominantly on boats and before the advent of destructive fishing practises. We’re exploring various narrative ideas right now, but one is to identify and elderly Bajau as a narrator who can tell us what life used to be like – the film would then recreate their marine based lifestyle – one that reflected harmony with ecosystems as well as hunting etc. I was wondering if Togian could be a potential location for finding Bajau still spending extended periods on their boats – pongka and lama. We were told by boat -dwelling Bajau around Torosiaje that there were similar communities in Togian islands. Any chance that we could have a chat on Skype or via email. My details below!

    February 8, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    • Hi Johnny! Thanks for your blog commentary … I have seen your and James Morgan’s article and pictures from Torosiaje and Wakatobi. It’s great! Recently, I was in Wakatobi and Buton where I met Bajau Laut and now I am heading towards Lasolo, north of Kendari, where there might also still be sea nomads. But probably they settled in houses only a few years ago. Unfortunately, I have no idea if there still are boat-dwelling people in the Togian Islands. I haven’t been there myself and I haven’t heard anything. You can ask Sadar, a native Bajau, who works for WWF in Wakatobi. He has visited many Bajau communities in Indonesia: Regards, Erik

      February 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm

  4. Hi Erik, I am an architecture masters student and am interested in architectural/heritage conservation and specifically studying the housing types of the Bajau people. I am wondering if you would have some time to offer some assistance. I am looking to find authentic settlements and to document their types of housing – method of construction – and document these housing types before they disappear. I am very interested in the sabah pulau gaya area. Would you be able to comment on the settlements there? Are they intact, are they safe to visit and is it difficult to make contacts there? Would you be so kind as to contact me

    Thank you. Beautiful photos and I am also interested in following your blog/travels.


    February 21, 2013 at 11:43 am

    • Hi Ophelia! Thanks for your commentary and inquiry! Great with an architectural approach to Bajau’s settlements. Yes, I have been to Pulu Gaya (in Semporna) and there are many traditional houses there. All, except one house, are placed in the water on the sand bank, and most houses are traditionally built with coconut palm trees and leaves. Only few of the houses have metal roofs. I think they in general re-build their houses after 3-5 years. Pulu Gaya is one o the more remote islands of Semporna, but it a safe place and it is easy to reach if you hire a boat in Semporna. I have visited the place a few times and they are friendly …

      If you have Pulau Gaya in Kota Kinabalu in mind, I don’t know, because I haven’t been there. Are you coming to Sabah? Best regards, Erik

      February 21, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      • I. Eafifi

        Replying to the message from December 23, 2013 at 11:18 pm.

        Gosh Erik. I have just noticed your reply after almost 2 years! Someone did email me to ask regarding Bajau houses recently. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t even noticed that you are inviting me to Semporna back in January 2014. My apology.

        I’m always in Sabah for every two months and I have been to Semporna for three times this year alone.

        By the way, if im not mistaken, I saw you walk passed me by during the Lepa Festival Semporna 2015 this year (judging from your picture in this blog).

        October 27, 2015 at 10:25 am

      • Hi again! Nice to hear that you are still visiting Semporna. I will go there in the middle of December this year for a short stay. Maybe we can meet up then if you are around! The Regatta Lepa was great! /Regards, Erik

        November 2, 2015 at 10:26 am

    • Helen Brunt

      Hi Ophelia, You might be interested in the work of Arkitrek ( a Kota Kinabalu-based green design company.
      As Erik as highlighted, there are (at least) 2 islands in Sabah known as Pulau Gaya (big or great island) – one off shore from Kota Kinabalu, and another off the east coast of Sabah, near Semporna (this island is also known as Pulau Bodgaya -‘big hill’). I can give you more information on both/either if you are interested. You should note that Pulau Bodgaya off Semporna is inside the Tun Sakaran Marine Park and permission is required to do research there. Best wishes, Helen

      February 23, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    • I.Eafifi

      Hi Ophelia,

      I just stumbled upon this blog and read your comment regarding your interest in studying the typology of the Bajau houses in Sabah. As of now, there are two researchers that I know currently doing the architectural typology of Bajau Laut, one is a PhD candidate from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and another one being myself. Yes, some of the traditional houses are still intact though they are highly dependable on locations. I woudn’t recommend Gaya Island for the location of your study due to the urban exposure of the surrounding city. If possible, try to find a site located on the east coast of Sabah if you want it to be as authentic as possible.

      Regarding your research interest, I would highly advice you to contact me in order to situate your research and fulfilling the research gap.

      To Abrahamsson and Brunt – I have read your fantastic dissertations. I even made several references to your research. Hats off.

      December 21, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      • Hi Eafifi! Thanks for your comment. I have forwarded your message to Ophelia and hopefully she will come back to you. I agree that it is better to study Bajau houses on the eastern coast of Sabah instead of in the KK area.

        Are you in Sabah now? I am actually going there in the beginning of January for a short visit (Semporna). Maybe we can meet there.

        December 23, 2013 at 11:18 pm

  5. Helen Brunt

    Hi Erik,
    I have just come across your blog and read with great interest about your travels around Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. For the last 8 years I was based in Sabah, Malaysia and was the Coordinator of the Semporna Islands Project ( I have long had a deep and personal interest in the Sama Dilaut, especially the lives and livelihoods of particular families from the Semporna area (I recognise several faces and places in your photographs!). In 2003 I wrote my undergraduate thesis on their language (‘Divided by Land but United by the Sea’: A comparative study of the Sama-Bajau language group). I am currently studying for my MA in Anthropology of Development in the UK, and continue to be fascinated and engaged with the Sama Dilaut, looking particularly at their participation in or marginalistion from Marine Protected Area management.

    I wish you well with the remainder of your trip and your research,
    Best wishes,

    February 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    • Hi Helen! Thanks for your commentary. Actually I have heard your name mentioned many times when I have visited Sama communities in the Semporna region. You seem to have made a lasting impression on both children and adults … I wonder if you have an electronic copy of the essay you wrote in 2003. It would be interesting for me to read!

      Good luck with your MA studies!

      February 24, 2013 at 4:38 am

  6. Olof Hedman

    Hej! Jag är en 17 årig svensk lantbrukselev från jämtland med intresse för samhällsfrågor såsom hållbar miljö,ekonomi och medmänsklighet. Har fridykigt en massa när jag var yngre men senaste 2 åren har det varit så kallt i vattnet att jag inte tagit mig i.

    Är iaf intresserad i dykning, samhällsfrågor och hållbara livsstilar och skulle gärna vilja ha en dialog med dig om hur du tog dig dit du är idag, och prata om klimat,politik,ekonomi för dessa folkslag vore väldans intressant.

    Har mer att skriva men jag ska sova nu, regards

    March 28, 2013 at 12:00 am

    • Hej Olof! tack för ditt meddelande. Jag har precis kommit tillbaka till Sverige från rean i Sydostaien. Ja, det finns mycket intressant när det gäller Bajau Laut – såsom dykning, klimat, livsstil och ursprungsfolks rättigheter. Jag kom i kontakt med Bajau Öaut år 2010 då jag studerade på Österlens folkhögskola. Jag hade möjligheten att bo hos dem i en liten by i Filippinerna, där jag följde med och fiskade, lärde mig språket m.m. Vi kan höras vidare på mail!

      March 28, 2013 at 11:19 am

  7. Hej vän!!

    I’m a Filipino from Davao City but live in the United States and found your blog through the website. I have friends who are linguists and we would like to know what are the current health statuses of the Sama-Bajaw languages that you have been exposed to is. We are curious to know some answers to questions such as: are the various tribes speaking their own dialects of the languages? Any shifts of one language to another? Any language/dialect cluster do you find endangered? Are there children speaking their mother tongue? Etc…
    Please feel free to email me with anything you feel is relevant.
    Good job with the blog! Thank you for sharing information for future references and studies!

    May 23, 2013 at 10:42 am

    • Dear Miguel, min vän! Thanks for your comment and questions. Yes, there are plenty of Sama-Bajaw dialects, especially in the Sulu-sea.

      Most of the time I have been living with Central Simana speakers in Davao City. In the city there are approximately 3 000 Sama Dilaut and they are still speaking Central Sinama, and the children learn their mother tongue rather then Bisaya (most of the children do not attend school). Other groups of Sama-Bajaw speakers in Davao City, however, speak ther mother tongue less frequently.

      In Semporna, Malaysia, there are a big Sama-Bajaw speaking community (they speak Sama Semporna, Central Sinama, Sama Ubian, etc.). Also here most children are learning their mother tongue and many people on the islands speak no language except Sama-Bajaw. However, children who are attending school and are more adapted to the Malay community, are likely to speak Malay at home rahter than Sama-Bajaw.

      I have also been to southern Sulawesi where the Sama people are speaking a different Sama-Bajaw dialect, called Bajo Indonesia. Also here most people are still speaking their mother tongue and many words are similar to Central Sinama.

      There are many Sama-Bajaw dialects and I don’t know if any of these are endangered. I have been living with those who still are or recently have been boat-dwellers, and they are almost exclusively still speaking their mother tongue. So, I think the Sama-Bajaw languages will live on.


      May 24, 2013 at 3:13 pm

  8. Thank you Erik for sharing this wonderful knowledge of the Bajau peoples.

    I was wondering if you ever came across any information how far up north the Bajaws wandered? Did they reach China? Did they reach Formosa in the old days?


    Rob Ceralvo

    July 12, 2013 at 12:40 am

    • Hi Rob! Thanks for your comment. I don’t think that Bajau reached China or Taiwan. However, they reached Manila in the 90’s because of unrest in the Sulu Sea.

      July 12, 2013 at 10:23 am

  9. Erik,

    We met in london in may, I was the “babyswimming” one.
    My complements for this beautifull site. Your the next generation for AAT www information. Just compare it with mine…
    [ ].


    October 25, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    • Hi Dirk! It was nice to meet you in London and to know more about your pioneer work with water babies! You have a very informative web page. I have tried to find your Youtube clips of baby swimming but haven’t found them. Can you please send the link?

      October 25, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    • As baby footage is concerned, this is one of the best:
      Zena Holloway i mentioned earlier.

      November 28, 2013 at 4:38 pm

      • Hi, thanks a lot for sharing. It’s a lovely footage.

        November 28, 2013 at 8:32 pm

  10. Hi Erik, I am a Filmmaker writing a film script on a Badjao character. I would like to know more details about their culture, social setup, traditions ,religion, and history. Please site me some sources on the Internet or books I can read to give me a fuller background on the Badjao .

    Can you also give me contacts, people I can write or call to arrange a visit to a badjao community or badjao representative. Thank you for all your help.

    December 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    • Hi Atom! Thank for your message! Are you planning to make your project in Philippines and Malaysia? I have some good contacts in both countries! If you want to read more about Bajau Laut (or Sama Dilaut) I can recommend the book “Magosaha” by Harry Nimmo and “Bajau Laut” by Clifford Sather. I can also recommend “Boats to Burn: Bajo Fishing Activity in the Australian Fishing Zone” by Natasha Stacey, You can find an electronic version here:

      I would like to know more about your project, when are you planning to start? Will you make a documentary? You can also contact me on my e-mail: Good luck!


      December 23, 2013 at 11:31 pm

  11. Kiyoko Nakano

    Hello Erik!

    This an absolutely wonderful page you have. I was just introduced to it through an encounter on instagram. Visiting the Bajau Laut has been a dream of mine for a couple years now and I am happy to say that I am finally visiting South East Asia this November and December to make it happen!
    My original plan was to go to Semporna and figuring out a way to visit a village but I was informed that since the insurgence from the military people are not allowed to camp in Tun Sakaran Marine Park and that in Semporna I am only allowed to visit Mabul Island. That is one option, but since I will also be visiting Indonesia I was wondering if you could recommend me a place I would be able to visit.

    I am so fascinated by all the information and photography on this page. I am also interested in preservation of indigenous cultures, maritime lifestyles and marine conservation so I’m not sure if you could feel the excitement through this message but I am thrilled with your page! Thank you for sharing, I hope you are still continuing your studies and research! I hope to one day work in this field as well



    September 8, 2014 at 10:35 am

    • Hi, Kiyoko! Thanks for your inspiring comment! Yes, it’s true that travel in Sempoprna has become more restricted, because of the insurgent groups. But I would be surprised if you are only allowed to travel to Mabul Island. I actually think that you can visit more islands (if you don’t stay overnight). In Indonesia, I can recommend the Tukangbesi Islands southeast of Sulawesi. Here you will find many Sama people in the village of Sanpela at the island of Kaledupa. I am actually planning to travel to Semporna in the middle of December this year, so if you go for Semporna we might meet there!


      September 9, 2014 at 1:39 am

      • Kiyoko Nakano

        I appreciate your quick response!
        Would you recommend me just get there to Semporna and talk to locals as to where I am allowed to visit? I wouldn’t mind just visiting for the day. My only issue is budget since I will basically be couch surfing and going as economically as possible.
        I’ll be visiting Tawau/Semporna for about a week, Indonesia for about two weeks, and Philippines for three so I will already be in Philippines when you get to Semporna but I would have loved to meet you and talk to you in person!
        Thank you for the recommendation! I might consider visiting the island of Kaledupa.


        September 9, 2014 at 6:12 am

      • Hi again! I don’t think there will be any problems in Semporna … However, I am in touch with local people there and I am waiting for an update from them. In Semporna, Kaledupa and Davao (Philippines), I can help you come in contact with local people that you can stay with. If you want more information, please contact me by e-mail:


        September 9, 2014 at 10:22 pm

  12. Amazing work Erik, and very inspiring !

    December 4, 2014 at 10:17 am

  13. Jose

    Thank you!

    November 1, 2015 at 12:31 am

  14. Larry Merciales

    Hi Erik,

    Thanks for deep concern with our treasure culture of Badjaos, God bless bro..

    By the way I’m an artist, architect actually…and also concern to promote and learn more about our tribe if you allow me to paint one of your artistic picture of our badjao brothers, this will be great as i’m planning to have it entered on prestigious NCCA exhibit in Philippines hopefully next year…and for sure this organization or even your name to be mention on the exhibit if granted…..

    Thanks again and hoping forward for you warm acceptance…


    June 3, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    • Hi Larry! Thanks for your comment and appreciating words. Yes, you can paint one of my photos. You can choose which photo you want to use from my blog and flickr page and then I will send you the photo in high resolution. Good luck! I wlould love to see the end result!

      June 8, 2016 at 12:18 am

  15. muhammed

    Hi Erik. My name is Muhammed. i am working on a documentary film about Bajau Laut. when i researching on internet i saw your blog. i want to ask some questions about Bajau Laut. Could you contact with me? if you send me a mail i will pleasure with you. My email:

    Waiting for answers.

    Best Regards.

    Muhammed İplik
    From Turkey Istanbul

    May 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    • Hi Muhammed. Thank you for your comment! I will contact you by e-mail. Regards,

      May 15, 2017 at 12:42 pm

  16. Hello Erik. I think that the next paper, it’s a very good probe for AAH:

    November 22, 2017 at 10:49 pm

    • Hi Aitor! Thanks for your comment! Yes, this research that wrinkled fingers make it easier to handle wet objects is definitely in favor of the AAH. Regards, Erik.

      November 23, 2017 at 10:45 am

  17. kaminantekaleb

    Hey Erik,

    I’m a freediving instructor who has just arrived to Indonesia. I’m Interested in engaging with any Bajau i have the opportunity to find around Indonesia and Malaysia.

    I am seeking to immerse myself with a family and community of Bajau with the intent of observing and contributing as much as i can towards their lifestyle. One of my largest hopes is to be able to contribute the newest knowledge of freediving (safety concepts and sciences regarding decompression sickness and controlled equalization methods etc.) to local Bajau who may be harming themselves unintentionally.

    More than anything, I am looking to observe and learn as much as I can from these people and their culture while i can.

    I am writing you for several reasons. Chief of which is the hope that you and I may begin a communication concerning the Bajau. There is a lack of navigable information regarding these people, and I am hoping you may be able to aid in pointing me in the right direction of beginning my quest to engage with them.

    Any information or advice would be greatly appreciated.

    I appreciate your projects and efforts towards educating the world about these people and your beliefs.

    Thank you for your time and consideration,

    Kaleb Trunnell

    WhatsApp: +15412950586

    September 14, 2019 at 10:02 am

    • Hi Kaleb! Thanks for your message. I will write to you in PM. Regards,

      September 16, 2019 at 10:05 am

  18. Hei Erik. Thanks for this beautiful webpage!
    I am working on a new idea for Aquatic Ape human evolution.
    Everyone thinks that humans evolved in East Africa, which has always been dry enough that fossils can be preserved there.
    But humans probably evolved where chimpanzees and gorillas have evolved, in western Africa, which is wet and has an ocean like southeast Asia.
    I think that humans probably evolved from chimpanzees who were trapped on the barren volcanic island Bioko, just west of Africa. They could only get food from the sea there, and therefore evolved all the human features. Elaine Morgan was right in nearly all her explanations, except that she made the mistake that everyone else always makes: thinking that humans evolved where the fossils can be found in East Africa. Take a look at my little pdf webpages and links that explain this. Someday it will be proven by DNA, I am sure. But for now it is only speculation. and
    Good luck with your projects!

    April 17, 2020 at 10:08 pm

    • Hi Allan! Thanks for your comment!

      I have heard of this theory which is in line with Elaine Morgan’s theory that human ancestors were isolated and underwent a rapid evolution following the divorce from the ancestor of the chimpanzee. But the problem is that different human characteristics have arisen at different times in evolution, e.g. bipedalism arose far earlier than our big brains – and both properties can be linked to evolution near water. How long do you think human ancestors lived on Bioko islands?

      For me, it is more likely that the adaptation to marine life happened over several million years – and that it was only Homo Erectus that is very similar to us in physique – that underwent a true aquatic phase. Evidence of this isfor example their dense bones that are well suited for diving, the presence of the surfer’s ear in some of the Homo Erectus fossils, and the fact that they reached islands like Crete and Socotra.

      Good luck with your projects!


      April 18, 2020 at 10:21 am

  19. miguel

    Hej hej Erik!

    Thank you so much for your contributions and work anthropologically with the Sama-Bajau peoples. I really appreciate it and have been following your site for years now. I just wanted to express my thanks to you for giving the world more awareness and knowledge about this ethnolinguistic people group as not much studies have been published about them. I suppose the pandemic makes it harder to continue interaction and research, but even so, the pandemic will end.

    Miguel in Australia

    February 10, 2021 at 3:48 pm

    • Hej Miguel! Thank you for your appreciative words and thank you for following my blog. Yes, it has really become difficult to travel now and several countries in Southeast Asia are still closed for visitors. Anyway, the pandemic gives some time for working on loose ends, and I think that areas like Semporna as a whole benefit from fewer tourists. We have pushed the limits of our planet too far.

      February 14, 2021 at 7:46 pm

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