Their boat is their house and water is their land. For food, they dive into the depths of the ocean, with nothing but a wooden mask and a spear. For hundreds of years, they have lived a seaborne life. Owing to such long exposure to water, even their body has genetically evolved to adapt to marine life like no human on this planet. They don’t belong to any country, for sea is their abode. They call themselves Sama-Bajau, but the world hails them as “Sea Gypsies” or “Sea Nomads”.The Bajau people—usually found near the coastline of Southern Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia—live on stilts or on boats that are typically five metres long and one-metre wide. From the birth of a child to death of an elderly, Bajau spend their lives in the transparent blue seas among fishes and swans. Only when they have to trade fish for staples like rice and water, they visit the land. Otherwise, their boats are like floating houses with all the amenities and resources—canned food, kettle, kerosene, plants. Many families even keep birds as pets.A bamboo stilt house of a Bajau familyTheir true origin is still shrouded in mystery, as the Bajau have only been mentioned in some books written by sea explorers a few centuries ago. But experts have now gathered enough evidence from other tribes and communities to trace back the mysterious origin of Sea Nomads to Malaysia.The Bajau tribe belongs to a Malay ethnic group, which accounts for half of the Malaysian population. But, unlike others who settled on land centuries ago, Bajau chose the seas as their home. Earlier, there were other sea-nomad communities as well, but today, Bajau is one of the few surviving tribes that live above the coral reef, far away from the commotion of cities.Bajau folklore and traditions are orally passed on from one generation to another. One story that parents tell their children is about a man named Bajau. A clan leader whom everyone followed, Bajau was a large man. Folklore has it that his body could displace enough water to help his people catch fish. His clan was happy and flourishing, but that made neighbouring tribes jealous. They plotted to kill Bajau, in vain. Eventually, they all joined him and that led to the rise of the ‘Bajau tribe’.The ocean runs through the veins of Bajau childrenBajau people still uphold their traditions and lifestyle. Even today, they live on houseboats called lepas, which also serve as their only form of transport to go hunting in or migrate from one island to another. A regular day in the life of a Bajau is nothing less than an adventure. At break of day, men in the family dive into the deep waters to ‘fix breakfast’. Children as young as eight years accompany their fathers in the hunting expedition. With just basic gears and no oxygen tank, Bajau seamlessly swim to the depths of around 200 feet—spending around five hours underwater and catching over 15 pounds of fish every day. Bajau people have attracted experts from around the globe due to their unique lifestyle and abilities. Melissa Ilardo, a geneticist who spent three summers with the Bajau people said, “They have complete control of their breath and body. They spear fish, no problem, first try.”As they spend such long hours under water, Bajau people often end up with ruptured eardrums owing to changing pressure—some individuals even deliberately perforate their eardrums to make diving easier. At a stretch, a Bajau can stay underwater much longer than a regular man. When scientists tried to solve the mystery of their innate capability, they were astounded by the results. Published in the academic journal cell, the research says that the spleen size of a Bajau is 50 percent larger than the average individual. According to the Journal of Experimental Biology, when underwater, an individual’s spleen contracts to release red blood cells into the bloodstream. So a bigger spleen means more oxygen in the blood, hence longer underwater dives. Bajau people also have genetically enhanced vision that enable them to spot camouflaged sea creatures and precious stones.A normal day in the life of a Bajau womanBajau women, too, play a central role in their families. When men and children are busy fishing, building boats and trading, women spend time weaving straw mats, making and selling pottery—their handcrafted designs are famous across various islands. It’s a long, meticulous process that Bajau women have inherited from their ancestors. Other than creating household materials, Bajau women also make cooling powder—traditionally called bedak sejuk—from rice and pandan leaves that prevents the skin from dehydrating due to long exposure to salt.For long, Bajau have lived life in their own unique ways. But now, with increasing regulations against fish trading and ecosystem preservation many Bajau families have been forced to migrate to the land for basic necessities. And, those who are still living as sea gypsies fight their own battles every day to earn a decent living. For instance, according to the Malay government rules, the Bajau people now must use heavier and more expensive commercial wood instead of the lighter, cheaper traditional one to construct boats. The weight makes it difficult for them to navigate the seas. Besides, they don’t enjoy any citizenship rights or benefits. From food to basic healthcare, they rely on their traditional practices and marine resources. Now that their sea-nomadic lifestyle is under threat, they must think of alternative modes of survival.


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