For a Living Ocean


Guardians of the Sea – “Bantay Laut”

The Bajau of Matina Aplaya – where I have been staying for several months – have been recruited as auxiliaries for coast guard and maritime police in Davao. They have been given a number of fiberglass motorized fishing boats and will report illegal fishing activities fronting their communities and gather garbage floating in the sea. The fishermen will also receive a honorarium on the condition that they will let their children undergo a basic literacy program.  The programme is called “Bantay Laut”.

The idea of involving local communities in maintaining sustainable fisheries is great, and will recreate Bajau’s traditional role as guardians of the sea. However, the political linkages must be taken into account and the teaching should not interfere with Bajau’s culture and way of life. In a whole this is great news that contrasts with the negative news we often hear about Bajau Laut in the Philippines and Malaysia. At last, the Bajau Laut are being treated as actors.

The news has more than 11 000 likes on Facebook and more than 3 500 shares.


The Invisible Kids

AJ+ has published a new movie about the situation of kids in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia: “The Invisible Kids”. A majority of the people in the movie are Bajau Laut who stay without legal documents in Malaysia.

The Malaysian government started to deport illegal migrants on a higher scale after the Lahad Datu terrorist attack in 2013, where sex civilians and ten Malaysian security forces were killed. But the problem is that innocent stateless people without political connections also get affected. How many Bajau Laut claim that Sabah should be a part of the Sultanate of Sulu? Very few – the sultanate was just another empire they were alienated from. A majority of the Bajau Laut just want to live their lives in peace.

Bajau Laut have been living in the region for centuries, before any formation of national states. They do not belong to “Philippines”, “Malaysia” or “Indonesia”.


Shark Poster in Simana

The linguist Luke Schroeder has made a shark poster in Sinama. Still today many elder Sama Dilaut have great knowledge about different shark species and their habitats and nature.


Luke Schroeder has put a great effort in making the poster, talking with many Sama fishermen. When pictures have not been enough, he has interviewed Sama men on the behaviors and nature of the sharks which Luke has been able to link to scientific descriptions of the sharks.

The older generations of Sama still have a great knowledge about sharks, but the younger fishermen are much less familiar with the sharks behavior and nature.

Over exploitation of sharks has made shark fishing illegal throughout Southeast Asia. Also Bajau Laut fishermen have contributed to the near extinction of many shark species, largely driven by a great demand for shark fins.

Luke Schroeder has also published a poster about coral fish in Sinama, which can be found on his website: Common Reef Fish Sinama, English, & Scientific Name Poster.

Sama Girl in Metro Manila get Famous

During a festival in Queezon City a photo was taken of a 13 year old Sama Dilaut girl begging in the streeets with her younger sibling. After a while the photo got viral on Facebook and other social media. Today she has been modeling for several newspaper and been awarded a scholarship. Her name is Rita Gabiola

Why is she getting famous? Does it require beuaty to get a scholarship and support? Many Sama Dilaut have been deprived of their livelihood and they are discriminated. Throughout Metro Manila and other big Philippine cities they are now making a living from street vending, bicycle taxi an begging.

In Philippines, more than 10 % of the population go overseas for work and send money back to their relatives. But how many Sama Dilaut can go overseas for work? Who is sending money back to them?

Bajau Laut Kids Dive 12 Meters

In this short BBC video clip from 2007 we can see Bajau Laut kids who dive 12 meters over and over again. They have an amazing speed, technique and coordination!

The movie was recorded in the Gulf of Togian, Sulawesi, Indonesia, with freediver and TV personality Tanya Streeter. How far-fetched is the idea that we actually are semi-aquatic mammals?

New Report: More Plastic Than Fish By 2050

By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in world’s ocean, accordning to a new report from World Economic Forum. Most of the trash that gets into the ocean comes from land, not from cruise ships or fishing boats. More than 8 million of plastics are being thrown into the ocean every year.

Half the plastic in the ocean comes from five countries: China, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand

You can find the report from World Economic Forum here: The New Plastics Economy Rethinking the future of plastics.

Philippines - World's Ocean Day


Attending 1st Sama Dilaut Conference in Tawi-Tawi

Between December 1 and 3 I participated in the 1st Sama Dilaut (Philippine Badjao) International Conference on Sanga-Sanga Island, Tawi-Tawi. I was invited to make a presentation about our previous research on the Sama Dilaut, together with research colleague Professor Erika Schagatay. More than 200 people attended the conference, including local Sama Dilaut elders, researchers from Philippines, USA, Sweden and Japan, local government officials, filmmakers from USA and representatives from the Philippine council of UNHCR.

The conference was surrounded by a lot of security precautions due the insecure political situation throughout southwestern Philippines. The co-chairman of the conference Professor Abduljim Hassan from Mindanao State University, was very happy to receive international guests, not only as it showed there is an international interest for this conference but also as their presence send a signal of stability in the Tawi-Tawi region. ”After the French terrorist attacks I thought that none foreigner would come”, he said, “but I was very glad when I heard that they would come to attend the conference.”

In addition to academic presentations the conference included cultural exhibitions about Sama Dilaut, as for example traditional dance and music, and a silent theater depicting the traditional boat life of Sama Dilaut. In the last day of the conference we also got the opportunity to visit the island of Siminul which is home to the oldest mosque in the Philippines.

Subsistence Diving Among Sama Dilaut

During the conference, Erika Schagatay and I presented an abstract titled ”Three profitable freediving strategies used by the Sama Bajau – marine hunter-gatherers ”, in which we described traditional freediving speargun fishing, net fish drive  by divers and see harvesting of tripang and shell fish. We showed the important physiological adaptations in humans that make it possible for them to lead a lifestyle based on freediving. Our full article will be published in the beginning of 2016.

We also gave examples of the fact that many Sama Dilaut still lead a successful traditional life in many places despite the hardships they face in many regions throughout Southeast Asia, where over fishing with modern equipment threatens their way of life. Hence, we should not only talk about the problems facing the Sama Dilaut, but also about their unique and beautiful lifestyle and its prerequisites, and how it can contribute to a sustainable use of marine resources.

Anthropologist Harry Nimmo is still Remembered in Tawi-Tawi

In the first day of the conference we also had the opportunity to listen to a recent filmed interview with the anthropologist Harry Nimmo, who made long field work among the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi in the 1960’s. The film was made by the filmmakers Alice Dugan and Marlene Skrobe, which attended the conference. Harry Nimmo, the writer of the book “Magosaha – An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilaut”, depicted Sama Dilaut’s boat living lifestyle back in the 60’s and told how their lives were influenced by tidal waves, winds and currents. A few Sama Dilaut elders who attended the conference said that they still remember Harry Nimmo from his earliest field work. “He had his own houseboat”, one man said.513M4xdleLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

In the filmed interview Nimmo also said that much of the lifestyle that he encountered in Tawi-Tawi during the 60’s had disappeared when he later returned for short trips in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s. However, we should keep in mind that many of the elements that were described in his book Magosaha can still be found in other parts of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. In Semporna, Malaysia, to where many Sama Dilaut from Tawi-Tawi have fled during later years, hundreds of Sama Dilaut now live in houseboats. In Sitangkai, Philippines, big traditional healing ceremonies are still being held on an annual basis. In Davao, Philippines, and in Sulawesi, Indonesia, traditional speargun fishing with homemade googles, spearguns and swimming feet is still thriving. In Sampela, Indonesia, many Sama Dilaut still place the placenta – “the twin child” – in the ocean after birth, just to give some examples.

Sama Dilaut Elders Expressed their Concerns

Many Sama Dilaut elders from Tawi-Tawi who participated in the conference raised their concerns about their everyday life. One recurring point was that their catches often gets stolen at sea. Another major concern was that they have to rent the land where they live, and that there was not any land where they could bury their dead. They also said that many of their relatives have fled to Sabah, Malaysia and that they cannot see their relatives because of national borders, despite the fact that they are living close to each other in geographical terms. ”I haven’t seen many of my children for decades”, an elderly Sama Dilaut woman said.

Rosalyn Dawila Venning from the Malaysian NGO PKPKM Sabah explained that the Sama Dilaut of Semporna do not have any right to schooling or medical care and they are under a constant threat of deportation. Helen Brunt, a British anthropologist who has stayed in Sabah for seven years, was supposed to make an online presentation about the Sama Dilaut in Semporna, but couldn’t do so because of technical issues. She has written about Sama Dilaut’s difficult situation in her dissertation thesis: ‘Stateless Stakeholders: Seen But Not Heard?

According to Rosalyn Dawina Venning certain “house boat” passports were once issued to secure Sama Dilaut’s right to freely roam the waters of Philippines and Malaysia, but these passports were early exploited by other groups for illegal fishing and crossing of borders. One member of the audience claimed that he himself had managed to get a “house boat” or “lepa” passport a couple of decades ago even if he is not a Sama Dilaut. “There was an inflation in passports”, he said, “and the Sama Dilaut had to suffer; now they lack documents to legally cross borders again”.

“Badjao”– a term Dismissed by the Sama Dilaut

In Philippines, the word Badjao is being used to denote the Sama Dilaut, and they are now known throughout the country in big cities as Manila, Cebu and Iloilo as coin divers, recycled drum musicians, beggars and street vendors of pearls and second hand clothes. However, as concluded by Nazer H. Aliaza in his presentation “The Sama Dilaut (Badjao) Migrant in Metro Manila” very few of the Sama Dilaut who live in major Philippine towns are actually from Tawi-Tawi. In fact, none of the families interviewed by Nazer H. Aliza in Manila came from Tawi-Tawi, but from Zamboanga, Basilan and Jolo in the northern Sulu.

Accordning to Harry Nimmo there have been three groups of Sama Dilaut that have traditionally lived on boats, one from Tawi-Tawi, one from Sitankai and one from northern Sulu. Hence, when the Sama Dilaut are mentioned in Philippine media as “Badjao” it is mostly the northern group that are stressed. Unfortunately, no representatives of this population participated in this conference and I think it is crucial that also they get the opportunity to speak in any future Sama Dilaut conference. The term “Badjao” is a derogatory term which is neglected by literally all Sama Dilaut in Philippines, and the word should not be used.

Are they Refugees or Internally Displaced Peoples?

One of the organizations that attended the conference was The Philippine Council of UNHCR who discussed UN:s role in facing the hardships of Sama Dilaut. According to the spokesperson of UNHCR the Sama Dilaut who are displaced within the Philippines can’t be recognized as refugees since they have not left any national border. It is also questionable if the Sama Dilaut who have fled to Malaysia can be considered as refugees, because there is still a border conflict between the Philippines and Malaysia about the Sabah region in eastern Malaysia. ”The border is not yet established”, the spokesperson from UNHCR explained. There is also a matter of ancestral territory. “The Sama Dilaut has roomed the waters of southwestern Philippines and eastern Malaysia for centuries, so the flight by Sama Dilaut from Philippines to Malaysia will not automatically be considered as a flight from one national state to another, but rather as a movement within their ancestral domain”, the spokesperson told me. In the meantime the Sama Dilaut of Sabah suffer a lot, and without a refugee status they cannot get the attention their problems deserve, a major one being that they seem not to be considered to belong anywhere. In that sense they are “homeless” despite a long history in these waters and archipelagos.

Marine Reserves – Will they Benefit Sama Dilaut?

There were also discussions about marine reserves during the conference. Some Sama Dilaut wanted newly established reserves in the Tawi-Tawi region to be available for fishing, while marine conservatists claimed that the reserves are crucial for a sustainable fishing and that “no take zones” will benefit the whole region. The marine biologist Dr. Filemon G. Romero, he himself a Sama, claimed that the main reason why many Sama Dilaut have left the Sulu Sea for either urban Philippine areas or the Malaysian coast of Sabah is not only because of the unrest in the region, but because of reducing populations of fish. ”In recent decades there1st International Sama Dilaut Conference, Tawi-Tawi 2015 has also been a drastic decline in fish”, Dr. Filemon G. Romero explained. “Marine reserves are crucial for the survival of the Sama Dilaut in the Philippines”, he said.

“Sama Dilaut are Marine Biologists”

Erika Schagatay pointed out that the Sama Dilaut are experts – they are actually marine biologists. “We should learn from them”, she said and many people agreed. Sama Dilaut are really experts on the marine life, they know most species of fish and invertebrates, and they have a deep knowledge on animal ethology, sea currents, tides and weather conditions. But nevertheless, destructive fishing methods are being used by many groups in the region, and also among some Sama Dilaut. There is an old belief among Sama Dilaut that fish will always be re-created, which was likely true using only traditional fishing methods. With the introduction of commercial big fishing boats and less sustainable fishing methods a deeper understanding of the ocean’s vulnerability must be disseminated among the Sama Dilaut and other fishing groups across the Sulu Sea. It was pointed out that in some regions of Indonesia, nature reserves combined with traditional Sama fishing had been successfully combined.

Sama Dilaut Future

During the ending discussions of the conference it was a pleasure to see how the speeches of Sama Dilaut elders were received. No one received as much applause and encouragement as they did, even if their talks were only briefly translated to English. But their main problems being that have no land, little income and no political power – how will their situation best be improved?

The real issues about security and access to land were not discussed in proper detail. However, it is good that scientist and decision makers have met and started to discuss these crucial questions. It is also very important to give international attention to the topic. If international actors put pressure on local decision makers, change will be more likely to take place. However, representatives from Malaysian and Indonesian local and national authorities were absent. Perhaps an important step is to realize the common issues concerning the Sama populations across these nations?

If the international community puts pressure on the national governments of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia, so that Sama Dilaut get fully recognized by local and national authorities and their deserved rights –, if well managed national marine reserves are formed with only traditional or no fishing allowed, and  if zero tolerance for large-scale and environmentally harmful fishing is introduced in key regions, and resources provided to enforce these rules – then both the sustainable life of Sama Dilaut and the waters of the very heart of the coral triangle might face a bright future.


Study on Sama Dilaut Divers in Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia

In the end of 2015 I together with three companions made a scientific expedition in Southeast Asia. We visited four different Sama Dilaut communities in Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia with the intention to meet some of the best Sama Dilaut divers. We stayed with several families, where we followed Sama Dilaut underwater fishing and made measurements in order to throw light on the physiological factors behind a diving based lifestyle.

The trip was partly funded by the Mid-Sweden University and planned by Erika Schagatay, Professor at department of Health Science at Mid-Sweden University. Other participants were Itamar Grinberg, a professional photographer and Orio Johansson, a third year Medicine student at Lund University, doing a project with Erika´s supervision.

We documented traditional Sama Dilaut fishing methods involving diving, as for example speargun fishing (”amana”), net fish drive (”ngambai”) and sea harvesting (anꞌbba”). We logged Sama Dilaut diving patterns using Ultra Sensus Loggers, in order to determine their diving depths and durations. We also measured their lung capacity in relation to height and weight, measured the size of the fishermen’s spleen´s which contract during diving and releases red blood cells, and determined their diving responses, a mammalian diving reflex that makes the pulse beats slower and redistribute blod to the more vital organs – all three important factors to become a successful diver.

Speargun-fishing in the Gulf of Davao

In the Philippines we visited the Sama DIlaut community of Matina Aplaya in Davao City, where some fishermen still rely almost exclusively on traditional breath-hold diving speargun fishing. For four days in a row we went fishing spending hours a day at sea in the picturesque environment of the Gulf of Davao. During the fishing trips the Sama Dilaut covered large distances by boat to reach good coral reefs for fish. However, the number of big fish is reducing and it’s getting increasingly difficult to make a living from fishing, although a big catch of coral fish now gives a higher price on the market today than it did in the past. The Sama Dilaut blame local speargun fishermen using compressed air at night for the decline in fish, even though large-scale commercial fishing is also common in the area.

At the same time, the Sama Dilaut are positive to newly established protected marine areas in former fishing grounds around Davao. ”If the fish gets a chance to grow up, it will eventually leave the sanctuary and benefit our fishing”, the community leader Edjie Adjari explained.

Fishing with the TV-star Kabei and his brother

In Indonesia we visited two Sama Dilaut communities outside the southeastern coast of Sulawesi. We revisited the village of Topa, where we went diving for two days with some of the most skilled divers, and logged their dives. We did also have the opportunity to witness a traditional healing ceremony which included offerings at sea.

In Sampela, Indonesia, we met the underwater fisherman Kabei and his brother Laudo, who were recently visited by BBC:s Will Millard for the series “Hunters of the South Seas”. You can see a clip of the program here: Spear fishing with the Bajau.

We followed the brothers and three other skilled diving fishermen from the community during two days of speargun and net drive fishing. Sampela is located within the Wakatobi National Park and only traditional fishing methods are allowed here. The difference from Davao was striking – in only a few hours of speargun fishing without moving anchorage the five fishermen caught more than 30 kg of coral fish. In the reef closest to the village, Kabei even managed to find two lobsters.

However, also in Sampela fish is on the decline and both an increasing pressure from commercial fishing boats and a rise in sea temperature are major threats. According to our host Pondang it is also common that fishermen from the village migrate to Johor or Ambon, where price for fish is higher. ”In Sampela the price for fish is still very low but the cost of staple food as cassava, rice and water increase”, Pondang explained. In Sampela we also went sea harvesting for tripang, sea urchins, clams and other types of shellfish with Sama Dilaut women and in one hour of diving they got a substantial catch. However, on the market in Mola, located in the biggest island Wakatobi, we concluded that the worth of the women’s catch was not more than a few dollars.

Stateless divers in Semporna, Malayia

In Semporna, Malaysia, we tried to come in contact with the world known free diver Sulbin who walks on the seafloor in another BBC production, Sea Bed Hunting On One Breath – Human Planet. However, he and other stateless people from the famous tourist island of Mabul had left for Kota Kinabalu for seasonal work. Luckily, we came in touch with other Sama divers, originating from the places as Sulbin, Siasi in the Philippines, and followed them fishing to Omadal island where fishing was good.

In Semporna many Sama Dilaut are still living their entire lives on traditional house boats. Thanks to marine sanctuaries and a strong marine tourism fish is still plenty in the region. However, only the coral reefs of Sipadan have recovered to close to what they used to be before the introduction of new, destructive fishing methods mainly in the early 1970’s (Sather 1997: 119). The traditional fishing methods used by the Sama Dilaut are more sustainable, as mainly the big fish are caught.

Preliminary Findings from the Expedition

The preliminary findings from our expedition is that Sama Dilaut fishermen regularly stay more than 50 % of their time submerged while spearfishing. A typical diving shift lasts for 2-3 hours and three such shifts can be carried out during one day. The best fishermen have an underwater bottom time on up to 60 % – as we also have concluded in earlier studies. The summarized findings from our expedition, including findings on lung capacity, the size of the spleen and the diving response, will be published later.


Sather. Clifford (1997) The Bajau Laut: Adaptation, History, and Fate in a Maritime Fishing Society of South-eastern Sabah. Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press.

New Report from WWF: No Coral Reefs Left at 2050

A new report from WWF about the health of the world’s ocean was published o September 16, 2015. The Living Blue Planet Report provides a very accurate but also very sad picture of the state of the ocean:Living blue planet report

  • it shows a decline of 49% of marine populations between 1970 and 2012,
  • worldwide, nearly, 20 per cent of mangrove cover was lost between 1980 and 2005,
  • more that 5 trillion plastic pieses weighing over 250 000 tonnes are in the sea.

“In less than a human generation, we can see dramatic losses in ocean wildlife — they have declined by half — and their habitats have been degraded and destroyed,” said Mr Brad Ack, senior vice president for oceans at WWF.

Climate change and warmer oceans will make the situation worse, although fishing restrictions will be implemented. If current rates in temperature rise continue, the ocean will be come too warm for coral reefs by 2050. In this scenario it’s hard to see a future for Bajau Laut and other people who live on shallow water fishing and gathering.

Our Ocean under Pressure

1st International Conference on Sama Dilaut, December 1-3, Tawi-Tawi

The first Sama Dilaut International Conference will be held December 1-3 in Tawi-Tawi, Philippines. Among the invited scholars are Prof. Harry Arlo Nimmo, who made extensive fieldworks among Sama Dilaut in Tawi-Tawi in the 60’s. He has written the book Magosaha: An Ethnography of the Tawi-Tawi Sama Dilau and the memoir The Songs of Salanda and Other Stories of Sulu.

The conference is organized by Sama Studies Center and aims to open a dialouge between scholars, scientists, statesmen and development actors with the Sama Dilaut themselves. The meeting will be “an opportunity to look back to what has always been held by the Sama Dilaut as their life-ways since time immemorial and as traditional, and to commit to give them renewed winds to sail and to secure abundant seas that may facilitate their journey to reclaim their space and reorder their present realities”.

1st Sama Dilaut Conferense

Objectives of the conference:

  • To strengthen research and encourage academic interest on the plight and situation of the Sama Dilaut (Badjao) by highlighting their roles in the social and cultural development of the Sama society, and their contributions to the dynamics of maritime and sea-based economy in Tawi-Tawi and the Philippine waters, and the impact and consequences of geopolitics in Southeast Asian region in this roles and contributions;
  • To discuss development models and survey affirmative actions, and evaluate empowerment programs and interventions for this most marginalized of Sama ethnic communities; and
  • To provide venue and spaces for the Sama Dilaut to tell their narratives and as well as for listening to alternative voices speaking as interlocutors for Sama Dilaut issues.

More information about the conference can be found here: Sama Dilaut International Conference