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The sea nomads of Southeast Asia

Story by Jonathon Collins May 9th, 2017

They are not like you or I. They don't hear the eerie silence beneath the surface. Nor do they feel disorientated by the layers that swirl with every movement. They don't panic, or gasp for air when they're lungs have reached their limit. Instead, it is like a delicate performance, whereby shadows pirouette beneath a dim light seeping up through the surface. When I close my eyes and concentrate on nothing else, I start to hear it too.

Pulsing networks, invisible currents, life carried through ebbs and flows. It communicates with every sense in overdrive. A feeling that is as spiritual as it is physical, from the symbiotic connection between man and the wide expanse of water that most of us know so little about. The discourse of their whole lives revolve around a connection with the ocean; their livelihoods, their fate, their survival.


In the ocean and coastal waters between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines live a unique community of nomadic seafaring people known as the Bajau. Little is known of their exact origins as they have lived almost entirely at sea for centuries, coming to land only for trade and then migrating based on seasons, tides and the regions deemed to have the greatest abundance of fish. Some still live the way of their ancestors, in the confines of handmade lepa fishing boats adrift at sea. Many others have become fixed to permanent settlements over time, as a response to the political push to protect international borders, as well as to reduce risks from high seas, piracy and the ongoing need for costly boat repairs. Their stilted homes now perch on shallow reef and island shores, where their connection to land is only visible at low tide.

In every direction, the sapphire horizon is dotted by small wooden boats; an outline of fathers and sons, brothers and business partners, all reeling in nets and lines. On the perimeters of the islands, women work in sync with the tides when foraging the shallows for seaweed, crabs, bait worms and clams. It is a sight not uncommon throughout the Coral Triangle region, almost six million square kilometres of ocean and coastal waters stretching from Southeast Asia to the Pacific.

Along with more than 150 million people in the Coral Triangle Region, the Bajau rely entirely on the abundance and diversity of the surrounding marine resources for their survival.


Throughout the Coral Triangle, a common theme is playing out. Studies suggest that as much as two-thirds of coral reefs in various zones have been destroyed as a result of extended mass bleaching events in the last two decades. At the current rate of warming, WWF estimates that all coral reefs in the Coral Triangle will have disappeared in a little over eighty years if there is no immediate action on climate change. Warming sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, increased storm intensity and sea level rise will see the region’s ability to feed coastal subsistence communities decline by 80%.

In addition to these widespread impacts, the booming coastal population of Asia, as well as a growing demand for live export in Mainland China and Hong Kong has seen the continued use of unsustainable fishing practices like cyanide fishing and dynamite blasts which diminish the region’s marine ecosystem further. It has become yet another virtuous cycle of subsistence communities depleting the very environment that sustains them in order to survive. However, for the Bajau, this prospect of a changing climate is set to completely change their intrinsic connection to the ocean.

‘We’ve seen a lot of damage to the reef. In many sections it’s dying because of the sun, or being destroyed from cyanide and fish bombs. In the last few years, the fish we catch at sea have gotten smaller and smaller, because there’s nothing left for them to eat. We moved a few years ago because there was almost no fish, but we face the same problem wherever we go.’

Bin-Salabani doesn’t waver his eye contact from the sea, even for a second. His expression is not calculated, but knowing, as it fixates on the body of water surrounding his stilted home. His coarse hands feel for the hooks and line on the wooden floor, and almost like a ritual, the two are manipulated together and passed to his eldest son, who ensures they don’t tangle. Salabani is in his mid forties, but incredibly lean and staunch in his demeanour. His family of nine have skipped two meals because the morning catch was minimal. On a good week, he will earn 6 ringgit ($1.35 USD) as a profit of his sales to brokers. In time, that accumulated capital will be spent on repairing the tin for his home or on leaks in the boat.

At sea, ‘each day is bound only by luck’, according to Salabani. His family moved just a few years earlier from the nearby Manam-Pilik Island because there was not enough fish to support their consumption. Now, his household and many others face a similar problem on the outer shores of Omadal in Malaysia’s Sabah region.

While luck undoubtedly plays its part in the everyday, it is their environment growing increasingly susceptible to the underlying prospect of a changing climate, which the Bajau have also recognised overtime.

'The sun has gotten stronger and the storms are getting more powerful. The wind never used to tear the roof from our home but every month of the rainy season we must repair it. When its really windy or raining, I can’t fish because the waves will damage the boat. I will sometimes wait a whole week with no fishing. There’s nothing you can do except to sit and wait.’

- Sanuhati, fisherman on Omadal Island, Malaysia

‘Each year we find reefs that were once good for fishing but are now completely white. The water is murky with algae and there’s no other sea life. Some say its from the dynamite, but you can see the difference. Dynamite breaks it in to small pieces and reduces it to rubble. Those white reefs are from the sun getting stronger, and the ocean getting warmer.’

- Ahmal, fisherman on Sakaka Island, Indonesia


With resources already dwindling, it raises the question of how households like Salabani’s, who derive their only income and daily consumption from fishing, adapt to greater impacts of a changing climate?

Subsistence fishing communities in the Pacific, Asia and Africa have helped to build community resilience to climate change by shifting their jobs seasonally to prevent over-consumption of fish stocks year round. Their practices include seaweed farming, fish rearing in ponds, small cottage industries such as weaving, and social enterprises or businesses that generated seasonal income during periods of limited catch. However, for the Bajau this shift is almost impossible, as households not only lack additional income to diversify their livelihood activities, but lack the education and social networks to conceive other alternatives to subsistence fishing.

In Malaysia, the Bajau are denied the right to any legal documents and are by default, stateless. Many cases were recounted of Bajau families being deported to the Philippines despite having lived in Malaysia for over three generations. In turn, increasing numbers of capital-rich Bajau flock to Borneo from the southern archipelagos of the Philippines, in response to the violence and insecurity of Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist terror group in the southwest of the country. While the Bajau are seemingly better integrated into Indonesia’s ‘unity in diversity’ political structure; getting access to subsidised government housing and welfare, their isolation in remote coastal areas sees the Bajau mostly forgotten in political conversation. They are one of more than three hundred ethnic groups born at into the emerging social inequalities and competitive market of the fourth most populous country in the world.

It is this complex web of political, social, economic and environmental barriers which see the volatile Bajau unable to shift or diversify their livelihoods from subsistence fishing. As a result many are forced to leave, but with little reward.


With limited capacity to adapt or alleviate themselves from a complex cycle, the Bajau have begun and are likely to continue migrating as a necessary tactic; abandoning their tradition of living primarily off the ocean. However, those that migrate to urban areas do very little to alleviate themselves from poverty. In many cases, their illiteracy and lack of skills outside of fishing see them trapped in labour jobs that can barely sustain the newly acquired urban lifestyle.

In the Togean Islands of Indonesia, Bajau women from smaller islands leave to work in tourist resorts or on the mainland in Gorontalo or Ampana, as cleaners, clothes washers and kitchen staff for as little as $35 USD per month. Young men work for a little more, in labour yards or carrying heavy cargo on the twice weekly ferries to the mainland. The majority of their money is sent home to support their families during periods of limited catch.

In the city of Semporna in Malaysia’s Sabah region, Bajau children and teenagers roam the streets at night, begging for money. Most are homeless or living with connections in Bangau-Bangau, a sprawled shanty settlement known for its drug trafficking, black market trade and ethnic tensions with the Suluks, a group of newly arriving refugees from the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines. As the Bajau in Malaysia have no appropriate documentation, they cannot attend government schools to learn Malay or receive any education, and are forever trapped in a cycle of their own circumstance.


Having lived with the Bajau for more than a month; reeling in lines of fish from turquoise waters, carefully hovering over crooked floorboards, island-hopping and laying under the stars in a leaky wooden boat, it is evident that a secluded life at sea is set to change drastically in the near future.

Whether comparing the stories of the families met in Malaysia or Indonesia, the same underpinning principle applies: that Bajau culture, knowledge and insight of the world is neither recognised or integrated into the vastly changing, fragile modern world. Their segregation and autonomy, both politically and socially, has meant that the majority of Bajau people are forced to live the life they’ve been given for generations; a life at sea. As a result of being historically ingrained in a complex poverty cycle, the Bajau are not agents of change. They cannot diversify their livelihoods, nor do they have the assets to alleviate themselves from this poverty cycle. At the onset of even greater adversity from climate change in the coming years, they are presented with few options to adapt and overcome the fragility of their own circumstance without intervention and support.

Such intervention would consider that the Bajau look towards the sky and read every cloud in detail. They hear whispers in the waves and ripples in the tides; knowing if a storm or clear sky is imminent for the next day. They know if a day's catch will be big or small, without even reaching beneath the surface. Too often does society neglect the power of indigenous knowledge across the globe; communities, tribes and cultures that have passed on this ability to know an environment for generations, and what this could inevitable teach a modern world about preserving our planet when given the choice.


‘The Human Tide’ is an ongoing project that focuses on local populations facing the greatest impacts of climate change. The first part of the project, ‘TRADITIONS’ was sponsored by Olympus Australia.


Footnote: All images were taken on the Olympus PEN-F and OM-D E-M5 II with the 12-40mm, 25mm and 75mm lenses.