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Some of us dream of living by crystal blue waters with sandy beaches between our toes, on a warm sunny day in the depth of summer.
For the Bajau Laut, this is everyday life.
The Baja Lout people, known to some people as ‘Sea Nomads’, are a collection of closely-related peoples known for their life on the sea. They have many different languages and cultures within themselves. Their lifestyle is thought to have began sometime in the ninth century.
The Baja Lout, or Sama-Bajau, people traditionally come from the Philippines, but due to conflict there many of them have migrated to islands around Malaysia. There is some evidence that their migration shift historically was related to the trade of sea cucumbers.
Currently they refer to themselves as Sama or Samah, but are known by outsiders as the Bajau People. However, historically Sama referred to those who lived on land more, and Bajau referred to those who were more nomadic and based in the sea.
They have lived at sea for centuries, and have adapted to it despite their marginalization. Many of them refer to the Sulu Archipelago, in the southwestern Philippines, as their origin point or homeland. They are currently thought to be the second-largest ethnic group in Sabah, one of the states of Malaysia.
Over the years, governments have created programs which settled many of the Baja Lout on land, but some still keep to the seas. They live in very remote areas, far from major cities, amenities, shopping malls, and other conveniences of many other people’s modern day lives. Many of the islands they reside on are hard to find, both physically and even with Google Maps.
The Bajau Laut people live on boats, or set up simple shacks right on the water. They adhere to different religions, and some sects are known to build mosques over the sea. Other groups adhere to Protestantism, Catholicism, folk religions, and other religions.
But, they all have a deep appreciation and admiration for the sea and all of its creatures. Their kids do not go to school – and many are not citizens of the countries they settle in.
Baja children learn to catch fish, row boats, and other essential ocean duties from a very young age.
They also intentionally burst Baja children’s eardrums, in order to enhance their diving skills. Some Bajau people have been known to dive up to seventy meters, with only weights, traditional wood swimming glasses and spears.
Compressor diving is a major cause of death in Baja communities.
They use small, two-person sailing boats to go spearfishing. Some of these are called perahu, djenging, balutu, lepa, pilang, and vinta boats.
They make money by selling some of their haul.
Overfishing in the area is making it difficult for these boat dwellers to earn a living.
Some are leaving the water to find inland jobs.
They have also been negatively impacted by climate change, which destroys their natural environment.
Their traditional fishing practices have been overtaken by cyanide and dynamite fishing, which are also destructive to the environment.
Cyanide in particular can be devastating to reef colonies and ocean life, and is thought to have long term consequences for the ocean.
These practices can also harm humans – particularly improperly handled dynamite. Cyanide is also known to be fatal when ingested by humans.
However, some consumers, groups, individuals, and fishing companies are trying to preserve the traditional ways of life and communities of the so-called ‘Sea Nomads’.
The Sama-Bajau people have also opened up their communities, so that tourists can observe and participate in their ways of life.
Some scientists believe that they have adapted genetically to life on the seas, given that many of them have larger spleens and other genetic variations. Scientists have found twenty-five variations on their genome which they believe are unique to the Sama-Bajau people. Their enlarged spleens are thought to enhance their ability to hold their breath for longer while they are underwater. Members of the Bajau community have been recorded holding their breath for more than five minutes. An average person can hold their breath for around one to two minutes.
Hopefully, the lifestyle and community of the Bajau people can be preserved, and they can continue for years to come.
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