Rock the Boat

Transport, The Sea, Frontiers

"You bleed from your ears and nose, and you have to spend a week lying down because of the dizziness. After that you can dive without pain," Imran Lahassan told UK newspaper The Guardian in 2010. Like most Bajau fishermen, Lahassan deliberately shattered his own eardrums as a teenager in order to dive better.

To land-dwellers, an ear-rupturing initiation into adulthood seems extreme. But the nomadic Bajau people have trawled a tract of ocean between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia called “the Golden Triangle” for generations, and are intimately connected to the water. Though many now live in on land in Indonesia and the Philippines, those who continue the nomadic tradition still spend months at sea without stopping on dry land.

Seafaring Bajau live on traditional lepa-lapas, five-meter-long boats that run on a combination of rusty engines and human sweat. The boats’ sterns serve as makeshift kitchens, where families tend small cooking fires. The rhythm of the tides acts as their clock. The reefs provide a harvest of both food and commodities to trade with merchants back on land. And although all Bajau identify as Muslims, their adherence to traditional laws of Islam often depends on how far they are from land. Those who live on lepa-lapas continue animist spiritual practices that predate Islam and worship Omboh Dilut, the God of the Sea, interweaving Muslim practices with traditional beliefs.

All Bajau are skilled free divers, able to hold their breath for up to five minutes at a time, 30 meters deep. They practice deep, meditative breathing to reach a trance-like state before jumping into the ocean, and wear hand-carved wooden-frame goggles (though some have begun using plastic masks) and hand-made flippers. They hunt with spears made of boat timber, tire rubber and scrap metal, catching everything from sea cucumbers to small sharks. Their eyes have so adapted to the ocean’s murky light that they see better underwater.

But diving remains a dangerous lifestyle. Underwater pressure slows divers’ heartbeats to 30 beats per minute (the average human heart rests at 60bpm), squeezing the air in their lungs to one-third its usual volume. Decompression sickness, or “the bends” is a common cause of death among Bajau, as is, increasingly, bomb fishing. 

First introduced in the Philippines by Hong Kong fishermen, the tactic of throwing potassium cyanide bombs off the side of boats is an easy and common way to kill many fish at once. Hungry foodies in Hong Kong are ordering grilled grouper and poached Napoleon wrasse in droves, so some Bajau make their own bombs in order to grab a small piece of the Big Fish market.

Now, decades of bombing have damaged the coral reefs where they fish, making the traditional Bajau way of life increasingly difficult to uphold. But it’s hard to imagine anything else. Nohara, a Bajau woman born on a boat, has lived her whole life at sea, and stepping ashore holds little appeal. “I get land-sick,” she says.

Illustration by Fanqiao Wang, based on photography by James Morgan