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Sea change

Bajau fisherman Pak Jatmin carries a freshly speared octopus back to his boat off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia


Bajau fisherman Pak Jatmin carries a freshly speared octopus back to his boat off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia

“The Bajau are a group of nomadic people in southeast Asia who live at sea. I first heard about them while I was covering the tsunami that hit Indonesia in December 2004. There were stories circulating about these people who knew the ocean so well that they knew the tsunami was coming and as a result were one of the few ethnic groups living around those coastal areas that survived without being hit.

“I was taken by the romance of it: a cultural group that has spent generations living at sea, barely coming ashore, and I wondered what their unique perspective could teach us about the ocean. But what I discovered about the Bajau and their lives was far more complicated than I had imagined.”

Ibu Diana Botutihe, who has lived her entire life at sea, on the boat she calls home

A young Bajau girl wades out from Torosiaje village to look for sea cucumbers and shellfish

“The Bajau traditionally lived nomadically, travelling between Indonesia, Borneo, Malaysia and the Philippines. They used to spend the vast majority of their lives at sea, only coming ashore to sell fish, but that has changed and Bajau communities are mostly settled on or near land now. This is because most don’t have identity cards and governments began stamping down on the Bajau crossing borders without them. A few years ago the Indonesian government made a concerted effort to settle them. It put money towards building villages, providing electricity and running water, and encouraged the Bajau to move in.

In Torosiaje, which is where the image of the girl holding a basket [bottom image above] was taken, a community was forced to move ashore to a government settlement. It didn’t work out and the Bajau ended up building their own village about a kilometre out to sea on stilts, which is what you can see in the background. So they’re settled but not quite where they’re supposed to be.

“There are still a handful of Bajau living completely at sea. Ibu Diana Botutihe [top image above], who I met in Sulawesi, Indonesia, has lived her entire life at sea, visiting land only when she needs to trade fish for rice, water and other staples. Ibu Ani [below] is one of the most fascinating people I met. She is a widow and paralysed from the waist down, but she has spent her whole life at sea, living on a boat little more than five metres long by a metre wide. She travels the area with her son Ramdan, who was about 12 when I met him. They were floating around on a boat in the middle of absolutely nowhere, sustaining themselves almost solely on what the ocean provides.”

Ibu Ani looks on as her son, Ramdan, forages the reef for clams. Both have spent the majority of their lives living off the sea

Pak Lapoli uses cyanide to catch grouper for the live reef fish trade

“The romantic notion I had of the Bajau living in complete harmony with the sea was wrong. While they’ve built all of their mythology around the marine world, they are also destroying it through dynamite and cyanide fishing. The fault doesn’t lie with the Bajau alone, since a lot of them are caught in debt traps. Fishing companies, usually from China, will lend Bajau people money, to buy something like a new boat, and that debt will need to be paid back with interest through fish. The debt spirals upwards and they end up having to catch ever more fish to survive.

“Dynamite fishing isn’t very complex. You make a bomb out of matches, fertiliser and sand, throw it in the water where it explodes, and then pick up what it has killed. Dynamite fishing is not ideal for export as the Chinese are far more interested in the live fish market – which is where cyanide fishing comes in. Live fish, in particular grouper, sell for hundreds of dollars at restaurants in China and the easiest way to catch them is through cyanide fishing.

“The image on the left shows how it is done. Cyanide is being squeezed out of a bottle down the current of a reef. That cyanide will float all the way down the reef, stunning but not killing the fish in its path. The Bajau then swim down and pick up the stunned fish and sell them for a dollar or so apiece. The fish will then be flown out to Hong Kong or mainland China where they are injected with an antidote which counteracts the effect of the cyanide and which can stay in a fish’s system for up to a week. While the cyanide doesn’t kill larger reef fish, it inflicts huge damage on reefs where it is employed, killing the coral and many of the life-forms that rely on them.”

Pak Usrin demonstrates how to make a fertiliser bomb with matches and an old bottle

A fish is injected with an antidote to combat the effects of cyanide fishing. The antidote can stay in a fish’s system for up to a week

“The Bajau can hold their breath for as long as 13 minutes at a time. I’m not surprised by the reports about them evolving – it would make sense that so much exposure to the ocean would lead to genetic adaptation, but that way of life is changing too. Compression diving, in which air is pumped down through a hosepipe, is more effective for cyanide fishing. It allows you to go deeper for longer, but it can result in the bends, which is the biggest cause of death among the Bajau. It is what killed Ibu Ani’s husband and is the reason she is paralysed.

“Another threat to the Bajau is the huge drop in local fish stocks, which is making their way of life impossible to sustain. They can go to spots where they’ve been fishing successfully for generations and catch nothing [today]. If your way of life is completely dependent on the sea, that’s devastating – you need those ecosystems to remain intact.

I think there are enough Bajau who want to live at sea, even amongst younger generations, and there’s definitely a sense in the Bajau villages that what they’ve got is pretty special. But I think the environmental factors will probably stop that from happening. Unless there is fairly rapid change, we could be seeing the last of the sea nomads before too long.”

Live grouper in the Pulau Mas holding facility in Bali awaiting transportation to China. Pulau Mas are one of the few firms to discourage the use of cyanide fishing in the live-fish trade

A grouper for sale at a seafront restaurant in Sai Kung, Hong Kong

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