The Life, Traditions and Adaptations of the Bajau Laut

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

Last April I ventured off to the beautiful Island of Hoga, Indonesia as part of my MSc in Tropical Marine Biology (this trip may or may not have been my main reason for picking this particular marine biology course…). While there I was lucky enough to get to visit the floating Bajau Laut community of South Sulawesi. As we went past by boat, I was truly amazed by the settlement. House after house on stilts above the water connected by paved streets, but most by planks of wood attached to stilts. I must admit while walking around looking down and being able to see the sea beneath my feet through gaps in the planks was a bit unnerving. But not for the people who live in these communities! Young kids were running full speed along these planks without a second thought. While there we got to ask some of the Bajau about their culture, traditions and the effects of over-fishing and global warming were having on them as a community that lived so closely and relied so strongly on the sea. It was truly an experience I will remember and be thankful for forever!!

The Bajau way of life

The Bajau are often thought of as the last true nomadic sea dwellers. They have been living and travelling on the Southeast Asian seas for over 1,000 years. Those who do not live on houseboats, which are called lepa-lepa, live on small houses on stilts in the water. Other Bajau settled on land over 200 years ago with many settling in mainland Malaysia and Borneo (Sabah). Traditionally, the Bajau would only come ashore to seek shelter from storms or to trade, meaning their lives are centred around the water they live on.

With no wetsuit, flippers or breathing equipment, these free diving experts have dived to depths of 70m for up to 13 minutes with only a pair of wooden goggles and self-made spear guns. These homemade goggles are made from bits of driftwood or from parts of shipwrecks! They spend on average five hours underwater on any given day, capturing up to 18 pounds of fish. This close relationship with the ocean starts from a young age with children learning to swim, fish and hunt from the age of eight. These extreme depths lead to many Bajau’s eardrums rupturing due to the intense pressures underwater. However, some have started to rupture their own eardrums at a young age to make diving easier.

Homemade goggles worn by the Bajau while free diving to incredible depths

The History

The Bajau history has a complex relationship with the ocean. It’s believed that there are spirits in the currents, tides, coral reefs and mangroves. There is no official state record and very little written down about the Bajau's history, instead, they passed down their history orally from generation to generation. Their history is entrenched in folklore and traditions. One tale talks about a very large man called 'Bajau'. People would follow him to the river, due to his large body mass, and when he stepped in the river the water would displace and allow the others to fish easily.

Changes from the Traditional Practices

Traditional practices of the Bajau have changed over generations to keep up with the ever-changing world. With growing population size, the competition in fishing has increased causing some Bajau to start using more commercial fishing tactics such as cyanide and dynamite. These cyanide and dynamite fishing techniques are not only decimating reefs in the coral-triangle, one of the most diverse marine areas in the world but has also caused countless deaths of human lives. These commercial tactics are used by neighbouring fishing villages and islands, so inevitably to keep up the Bajau have been forced to adopt this unsustainable, illegal and extremely dangerous way of fishing. Additionally, they’ve had to start using heavier wood for their boats, due to the original wood coming from a now endangered tree. This use of heavier wood means their boats now require engines, which means spending money on fuel and likely going on land more in order to acquire it.

The most prevalent effect on the Bajau steering away from traditional practices is the growing stigma associated with the Bajau’s nomadic lifestyle. This stigma has forced some to settle permanently on land. This movement to land has granted acceptance from surrounding cultures and has given them access to government programs that they previously wouldn’t have had access to.

Genetic adaptations

The Bajau have developed physiological adaptations to diving and diving-induced hypoxia. Hypoxia is caused by low levels of oxygen in your body’s tissues and blood, which can cause brain damage in just a few minutes. A study published in Cell used an ultrasound machine to scan the bodies of 59 Bajau villagers, they found that the Bajau had 50% larger spleens than their land-dwelling neighbours of the Sulan. The spleen is basically a warehouse for oxygen-carrying red blood cells, bigger spleen means more oxygen-carrying capacity. When mammals hold their breath the spleen contracts and expel oxygen-carrying red blood cells, leading to a 10% increase in oxygen levels. Larger spleens have been found in the best competition free divers and deep-diving seals. Along with this increased spleen size the Bajau had a gene called PDE10A, which is thought to control a hormone in the thyroid. This same gene has been linked to spleen size in mice, where manipulation of the hormone can cause changes in the size of their spleens. This is an incredible example of modern humans evolving in tandem with their surroundings!!

This is just a brief insight into the Bajau and their incredible culture and lifestyle! In case any of you want to learn more about them (trust me you do) then here are a couple of documentaries about them, I highly recommend checking them out!

Ruth x


'Jago: A Life underwater'

'Hunters of the sea - The Bajau'

'Bajau Laut: Last of the sea nomads' - Not a documentary but some incredible photography by James Morgan

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