There is a mysterious tribe located in Southeast Asia that lives a fascinating and unique lifestyle. They spend over 60 percent of their day in the water. The tribe is sometimes referred to as “sea nomads,” and they live in many areas around Asia, including the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia. It is believed that there are over one million people in the tribe.
The Bajau people don’t have houses or a place to call home on the shore. Instead, they live on boats that they built themselves. They call them “lepa-lepa” vessels, and when they are out on the water, the scour the seafloor for fish and other items that can be sold on land. The people in the tribe spend more than half of their day working, which means that they are always in the water. Because of their unique lifestyles, a group of researchers wanted to take a closer look at their biological makeup.
The 16th Century
The Bajau Laut tribe had been around for hundreds of years. There are records of this tribe that date back to the 16th century. A man named Antonio Pigafetta first discovered them. He was from Venice, Italy, and he joined the crew of the Spanish-sponsored Portuguese explorer, Magellan, when he tried to find a new route to India in 1519. It took them three years to complete their journey, and in 1521, Antonio made a note of an interesting discovery he made along the way. He came across the Bajau in the ocean.
The Bajau’s Origins
It is believed that the Bajau were once servants to an Asian king on the shore, who had a daughter who was a princess. When the princess went missing, the king sent the Bajau out to bring her back. When they couldn’t find her, they decided to stay out on the ocean to avoid the king’s anger. There are a few other stories from tribes in other parts of Asia, but they are all similar. Each story ends with the tribe choosing to remain out on the water.
Some of the Bajau live in houses on stilts above the water. Others choose to live in boats on the water. They need to be on the water so that they are close to the area where they hunt. They hunt on the ocean floor, and their bodies face obstacles that all humans do when we swim deep below the ocean’s surface. The further down you go, there more pressure there is. The Bajau found a solution to that problem. When they are young, they burst their eardrums. When this happens, they bleed from the ears and nose and have to spend a week lying down due to the dizziness that they experience. After that, they can dive deep without any pain. This tribe spend most of their lives in the water, and their bodies have adapted in a bizarre way.
Like most divers, the Bajau needs equipment. They use goggles made from wood with a glass lens. They also bring a spear with them that is made of metal and rubber. This helps them pick up the things that they find under the water.
Staying Under the Water
They don’t use oxygen tanks, but some members are known to be able to hold their breath for a long time. This gives them ample opportunity to get the things that they need under the water. There are some Bajau who can hold their breath for 15-minutes at a time. However, this kind of extreme diving does cause problems. Their ruptured eardrums help, but they have other pressure issues to deal with. They call it “the bends,” but it is actually decompression sickness. This can take a significant toll on the body. Some who experience the bends suffer permanent disabilities and even death.
The Indonesian government has been clamping down on the tribe’s traditions and ideals. Many members have been forced to move to shore. This led them to create small communities on the water in houses held up by stilts. The village is about a half-mile from the coast, and without a boat, it can be challenging to get there.
Kasim is a member of the Bajau. She lives on her lepa-lepa for half of the year with her child, Ramdan. They make ends meet by finding what they can in the water during the day. At night, they join their tribe in their boats, and they eat and relax.
For some, the Bajau lifestyle seems strange. For those in the tribe, it is their life, and they love it. Kasim says that she and her people enjoy being at sea. They enjoy fishing, rowing, the cold, and the heat. Sadly, her husband died of decompression sickness, so now she struggles alone to raise her child alone.