The Shape of Water: The Native Bajau Way of Life


Deep in the waters of Southeast Asia, the Bajau swimmers dive to depths of 70 meters on a single breath. While the rest of mankind exists on land, this native Malaysian tribe has evolved to life at sea. They are the last of the sea nomads, who make their beds on long boats (known as palapa) and eat what they catch at sea. Drifting between the islands of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, they belong to no country and call no place home. Their entire existence is a rejection of modern civilization: they carry no cell phones or passports, they don’t pay taxes, or vote in elections, or send their children to public school. 

Their way of life has remained unchanged for hundreds of years—until now. The Bajau swimmers today may be the last generation to live at sea. The industrial fishing industry has made it more and more difficult for the Bajau to make a living on their trade. The coral triangle, their once-bountiful hunting ground that represents one third of the world’s coral reefs, has been ravaged by dynamite fishing, reef bombing and cyanide poisoning. The bombing of the reefs has caused many Bajau swimmers to lose limbs, and the overfishing has made it harder to sell their wares. 

They are not only moving onto the land for work, but to survive: since they are denied citizenship rights when living at sea, they are shut out of schools and public services. While some Bajau are relocating to stilt villages or towns on the coast, many remain suspicious of traditional schooling and life on land, preferring to remain adrift in the ocean. 

As the swimmers gradually abandon relics of their past lives along the shores of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and move towards an uncertain future, their story is not unique to them. All over the world, native cultures are being faced with extinction. The impact of modernity on the lives of these communities poses the eternal question: once lost can we ever go home again? 


Bajau diver catches an octopus

(Image of Bajau diver provided by Adobe Stock)

A recent study of the Bajau people by the University of Copenhagen’s Melissa Ilardo indicates that their bodies have adapted to life at sea. Upon learning about the history of the Bajau, Ilardo felt compelled to investigate whether hundreds of years of aquatic living had impacted their physicality: “It seemed like the perfect opportunity for natural selection to act on a population.” (source: NY Times)

Her instincts were correct. After centuries in the Pacific Ocean, the Bajau share physical similarities with other marine life, and marked differences from fellow, land-locked tribes. The evidence of their aquatic lifestyle has appeared on their bodies: they have strong underwater vision and fractured eardrums, with spleens double the size of their landlocked neighbors. Their mammalian dive reflex is shared with otters and dolphins far more often than with other humans, they can remain underwater for up to 13 minutes without oxygen. 

Our bodies are living maps of the places we’ve lived, where we call home. And while not every member of the Bajau population spent hours and days underwater — preferring instead to tend to their floating homes above the surface — it didn’t matter whether specific individuals were divers themselves. They all shared these evolutionary traits, reflecting a shared collective history as a people. 

Tides of change

Bajau homes elevated above the water by stilts

(Image of Bajau homes provided by Adobe Stock)

“Home is a concept, not a place; it is a state of mind where self-definition starts.” -A. Bartlett Giamatti, “Going Home”

In recent years modern fishing practices, pollution, and government testing has been destroying their homes in the ocean, causing their lifestyle to become rapidly more difficult to maintain. Many Bajau swimmers are being forced onto foreign territories for their own survival, yet life on the mainland is alien to them. Those not willingly moving onto the land are being driven ashore by the governments in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, who are wary of these sea nomads crossing borders without passports or any form of identification. 

Though they are promised by the government that the settlements will have proper sanitation, many lack running water and electricity. After generations at sea, they are ill-equipped for survival on land—many develop Malaria, or alcoholism falling into the cruxes of modern life, their lives becoming worse off than before. 

However, although the mainland may be the future, the ocean holds the memories of their past (and desired present). This raises the question, what happens when your body and livelihood has genetically adapted to an increasingly obsolete lifestyle? 

Wandering the deep

Bajau man floats in a canoe

(Image of Bajau man provided by Adobe Stock)

The photographer James Morgan experienced the Bajau Laut lifestyle firsthand, documenting their daily activities for his series “Bajau Laut: Last of the Sea Nomads”. Morgan headed to Indonesia to document the Bajau Swimmers after reading about an ethnic group in Haiti whose intimate knowledge of the ocean allowed them to survive the 2004 tsunami without any casualties: 

“I became quite interested in this slightly romantic notion that a group of people had a really in-depth understanding of the ocean,” says Morgan. “I was interested in how that fitted in with marine conservation.” 

This curiosity led him to the island of Sulawesi, where he asked after the community of divers. Within a couple of days—aided by an ability to speak passable Indonesian—he found a small group of Bajau Laut. The tribe welcomed him into their community: “They were quite interested in having their stories told and being photographed and showing us how they live.” 

Children are taught to swim before they walk, and many divers still walk the ocean floor with handmade spear guns and goggles. He was visiting them at a unique time in our environmental history: “Because they’re at sea, the amount of resources available to them are dropping; there aren’t that many vacancies at sea, so it’s a lifestyle that is getting harder and harder to maintain.” In turn, they’ve adapted. 

“One of the unique things about them was how resourceful they were,” says Morgan. “They make goggles out of the bottom of Coke bottles that they find washed up on shores and they use every bit of the fish and all sorts of scraps that they find lying around, making spear guns out of driftwood and bits of rubber.” 

The Bajau Laut have unique religious traditions as well. The Bajau are predominantly Muslim, however, they retain spiritual beliefs rooted in a seafaring history that predates organized religion.  Though the Muslim tribe rarely fasted for Ramadan, they celebrated the dry rice harvest with a maggomboh ceremony in July or August. On the first night, families sleep on their boat with their heads turned towards a basket of rice. The next morning, they cook the rice into a cone and bring the cone to a medium on another houseboat, who invites spirits to join the cone. This sense of spirituality is an element of their culture exemplary of their attitude towards the ocean. 

“For them, there are spirits that live on the cones,” says Morgan. “So, you’ve got the sense that when you are looking at the ocean, you are looking at quite a different thing.” 

The price of freedom

Abandoned Bajau hut on the beach

(Image of abandoned Bajau hut provided by Adobe Stock)

“The outside world…will never speak to us in a voice that will clearly tell us our way.” - Georg Lukacs

The concept of home is in itself a complex concept. However it can also be perceived as a dynamic dance of co-adaptation; as we shape the environment around us, so does it exert its influence on us. 

The full complexity of the tribe’s relationship to their spiritual homeland is illustrated in their fishing techniques. Morgan would learn that the original motive of his trip—to explore the tribe’s relationship to marine conservation—was actually more complicated than he originally imagined. “Spitting in the sea is a really big taboo, and not something that anyone would ever do. But then they’ll happily use dynamite on the reefs.” The Bajau swimmers use dynamite as a means of adapting to the urgent demands of modern life, and resorting to these more modern means of ‘hunting’ increases their chance for survival. They may be the last generation to live at sea, but they are also ensuring that they are one of the last generations with the capacity to survive their nomadic lifestyle. 


For the Bajau, centuries of evolution have left them alienated from the modern world. Despite the increasing costs of materials for their boats, many of the Bajau refuse to leave the sea. They are willing to stay in the ocean, despite their decreased health and resources—brought on by the dynamite fishing of which they partake. They were born in the water and it is in the water that many will die. 

The demise of their traditional way of life would result not only in a loss for science but for culture as well. While life on land results in land-based rituals centered around fertility and harvest—for the Bajau, their food, their home, their family, derive from the sea. Their creation story, known as the Akiko, takes two days to tell in its entirety. The song is a performed history of how the Sea Nomads came to be, and how they lived for hundreds of years in the ocean. Thankfully, there are efforts travelers can make today; they needn’t be the last generation to remember all the words. 

The UNHCR documentation program ensures the rights of the nomadic seafarers through community outreach and volunteer initiatives in the Philippines. Additionally, travelers can consult the Indonesia Tourism Bureau for contacts and advice on visiting the village of Wakatobi, where floating homes have been replaced by houses on stilts, but many of the Bajau traditions remain intact. The evolution of the Bajau is a microcosm of the larger changes impacting our world — and a reminder of what we must cherish and protect. Our history is what makes us human, and we’d be wise to remember our stories.

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