As the last of the sea nomads are the Bajau people adapted to a lifestyle that is disappearing?

By Katherine Parker – Magyar

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 ethnic 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?



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. It didn’t matter whether specific individuals were divers themselves, they each shared these evolutionary traits, reflecting a shared collective history as a people.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, “Going Home”

Home is a concept, not a place; it is a state of mind where self-definition starts.

Tides of Change

In recent years modern fishing practices, pollution, and government testing has been 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, 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


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 Asia 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 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.”

long boat infront of stilt village in Phillipines

James Morgan, Photographer

You’ve got the sense that when you are looking at the ocean, you are looking at quite a different thing.

The Bajau Laut have unique religious traditions as well. 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.”

man chasing after tropical fish underwater

man trying to catch tropical fish underwater

The price of freedom


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 happy 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.

child holding onto large fish tail in the water

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 extinction of the Bajau swimmers would result not only in a loss for science but for culture as well. While life on land results in land-based rituals centred 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. They may be the last generation to remember all the words.


James Morgan is an award winning photographer, photojournalist and film-maker. He focuses his work on adventure and conservation.

Connect with James @jamesmorganfoto