Sea Gypsies in the Celebes Sea; Semporna to Lahud Datu, 24 – 30 October 2011.

The Celebes Sea off the coast of Sabah is home to one of the last, large groups of sea-gypsies, the ‘Bajau’ people. These sea-nomads are an indigenous, ethnic group with origins probably from the southern Philippines and in the east of Malaysia, they maintain their seafaring lifestyle living aboard boats or on coastal stilt homes. In the west they have largely abandoned their maritime origins and become farmers and horsemen. With a total population in Asia of perhaps around 400,000, in Sabah the Bajau constitute almost 15% of the population with large numbers living in tribal groups on and around the islands and reefs about Pulau Gaya, now the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. They live on their boats and stilt houses, catch fish and barter, grow some crops on the shore, give birth in their boats and huts and live the very basic of lifestyles. They are also stateless, have no national identity, no passports, no (Malay) identity card and no formal access to hospitals, schools or Government support of any kind. They are however, very friendly and were more than happy in welcoming the crazy white people who came bearing gifts.

Bajau boat, Semporna.

From Semporna to Gaya is only about twenty miles and after escaping from the madness of boaty overload outside the harbour at Semporna, we slipped through the reef entrance at Gaya in the early afternoon. We had visited here briefly on the way south ten days earlier, but on this occasion we had organised the time for a look around. So after dropping the pick we slipped across the lagoon to introduce ourselves to the locals; a lot easier now with our native speaker Patsy on board. Along the way we also took the time to marvel at the beauty of the place. Gaya is really quite something and no shock that it is the centrepiece for the quite newish Marine Park. The lagoon gives all the appearance of a caldera with mountainous islands on three sides and coral reefs completing the perimeter of a lagoon two and a half miles across. The water is blue, the islands verdant green with forest and with luck, time and good management the reefs might get back to the pristine conditions that would do justice to the surrounds.

The Bajau village we visited is on the SW side of the island just outside the lagoon and through a shallow entrance between two of the islands; good protection here from the NE monsoon. The most noticeable thing about the Bajau, other than their choice of housing, is the number of small children. One gets the feeling here that with no televisions and DVD players there is only one form of adult entertainment at night and no room for modesty. Their lifestyle is however, really very humble and makes one consider the accumulation of possessions and ‘things’ that seems to occupy much of a western way of life. We came of course equipped with presents and the kids were terribly excited at the sweet treats on offer (really only marginally more than the adults) and the toys. We became quite the centre of attention here with visitors on boats and on foot, on foot here of course meaning a bit of a stroll through waist deep water. Interesting also to watch the preparation of food for dinner, for the more botanically inclined, fish with seaweed (Caulerpa racemosa).

Can you find the boats?

After our sea-gypsy sojourn we were all set for a quiet evening as the only boat in the lagoon when the radio came alive with the Thymers telling us they were just outside after also getting comprehensively sick of the extraordinary Semporna boat noise. With their arrival the mission next day was to climb the mountain overlooking the lagoon and behind the Marine Station on the eastern side. We had plotted this on our previous visit but constant rain and slippery tracks meant the parks people wouldn’t let us. But the next morning was bright and mostly clear and after a tour of the marine station and the obligatory ‘safety’ briefing away we went on our guided tour (the guide cost us ten Ringgit each).

The marine station is apparently dedicated to rehabilitation of the area as opposed to research and the main feature appears to be growing shellfish to put back onto the reef. Figuring large here are giant clams with lots of little clams being grown and fed via algal cultures growing in the next laboratory. The parks management people tell us that they have had the same problem here as in northern Australia in the past where the giant clams have been knocked about with people cutting out the adductor mussel which tastes apparently a lot like crab meat; might explain the bloody great piles of clam shells underwater and next to the Bajau stilt homes!

Not so 'Giant', Giant Clams.

After our tour of the marine station if was off to the top of the island via the parks people’s newly cut mountain, walking track. On walking in the tropics, one thing you can say about climbing hills is that you do get warm, well hot really; one doesn’t need any reminding how close we are to the equator when climbing up mountains, even small ones.  Fortunately this climb wasn’t anywhere near as hard or high as Mt Santubong back in Sarawak but if anything, the views were even more breathtaking. This really is an absolutely stunning part of the world to visit with the most spectacular vistas across jungle covered islands and fringing coral reefs and the boats just the tiniest of specks in the lagoon.  Of course it started to rain at the top of the hill and in between passing, welcome, cool, rain-showers we ate our fruit, drank our water and pondered how fortunate we were to be there.

Here we are!

North from Gaya and about 10 miles away is Richards Reef, a circular lagoon of reef, with nothing exposed above the water even on the lowest of tides.  Thyme had come in here a couple of weeks earlier and were keen for a revisit so next morning we dropped our anchors inside the lagoon and went snorkelling on some of best coral any of us had previously seen.  The underwater scenery here is so good we are having trouble understanding why Richards Reef hasn’t been included in the marine park. There is the standard shortage of large fish, but no evidence of blasting (for fishing) that much of the reefs have been subjected to in SE Asia. It may be that the shallow reef here just doesn’t have a large population of biggish fish meaning nobody has gone to the trouble of blowing it up. Either way it is quite something to see and any level of protection would be worthwhile.

Blast fishing or dynamite fishing is the practice of using explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. This often illegal practice can be extremely destructive to the surrounding ecosystem, as the explosion often destroys the underlying habitat (such as coral reefs) that supports the fish. The frequently improvised nature of the explosives used also means danger for the fishermen as well, with accidents and injuries.

Although outlawed, the practice remains widespread in Southeast Asia, as well as in the Aegean Sea, and coastal Africa. In the Philippines, where the practice has been well-documented, blast fishing was known prior to World War I, as this activity is mentioned by Ernst Jünger in his book Storm of Steel.One 1999 report estimated that some 70,000 fishermen (12% of the Philippines’ total fishermen) engaged in the practice.

Underwater shock waves produced by the explosion stun the fish and cause their swim bladders to rupture. This rupturing causes an abrupt loss of buoyancy; a small number of fish float to the surface, but most sink to the sea floor. The explosions indiscriminately kill large numbers of fish and other marine organisms in the vicinity and can damage or destroy the physical environment, including extensive damage to coral reefs. (From Wikipedia)

Our program from Richards Reef was to head for Lahud Datu, a large port, town about 32 miles west, so to make the next day easier we departed Richards Reef at 1300 (1.00 PM for the non nautical types) and headed for Pulau Tabawan some 20 miles closer to town.  We arrived at Tabawan not too long before dark and after scratching around looking for something shallower than 20 metres of water finally got to anchor just on dusk in the least marginal of anchorages. During the ‘hunt for a decent anchorage’ Thyme had spied what looked like an easy spot to run aground but not half bad looking reef for a snorkel.  Next morning off we went to check out the potential bottom scraper with Amanda complaining about breaking her rule of never snorkelling off mangrove habitats (here there probably be crocodiles). The reef here was okay, but obvious also and sadly was the bane of SE Asian coral reefs with patches of blasted reef all over the shop.  Apparently we had better get used to this before heading into the Philippines.

Patsy and Geoff; cooking, cooking, cooking!

Markets; Lahud Datu.

Lahud Datu was the next destination and home for a few days and around mid-day on October 27 we slipped quietly past the big fishing traps and palm oil ships to put down the pick just off the police dock and town centre. A crew change was in the wind here with Geoff and Patsy heading off to see Patsy’s family over near KL and British Lucy joining the boat for the passage back around to Sandakan.

Legend has it that in the days of yore the sea-gypsies would only ever go ashore to bury their dead. In the circumstances why they would bother to do that seems odd but either way and even today, on sea, on land, with or without a boat, it does look like a tough life.

Sea Gypsies; the Bajau people of the Sulu and Celebes Sea.

Boat of the Bajau Laut.

The Bajau or Bajaw also spelled Bajao, Badjau, Badjaw, or Badjao, are an indigenous ethnic group of Maritime Southeast Asia. Bajau continue to live a seaborne lifestyle, making use of small wooden sailing vessels (known as perahu) for voyages through the seas of austronesia.

Due to escalated conflicts in their native Sulu Archipelago, and discrimination in the Philippines with regards to education and employment, most of the Bajau have migrated to neighboring Malaysia over the course of 50 years. Currently they are the second largest ethnic group in the state of Sabah, making up 13.4% of the total population. Groups of Bajau have also migrated to Sulawesi and Kalimantan in Indonesia, although figures of their exact population are unknown.

Bajau have sometimes been referred to as the Sea Gypsies, although the term has been used to encompass a number of non-related ethnic groups with similar traditional lifestyles, such as the Moken of the Burmese-Thai Mergui Archipelago and the Orang Laut of southeastern Sumatra and the Riau Islands of Indonesia. The modern outward spread of the Bajau from older inhabited areas seems to have been associated with the development of sea trade in sea cucumber (trepang).

Bajau is a collective term, used to describe several closely related indigenous groups. These Bajau groups also blend culturally with the Sama groups into what is most properly called the Sama–Bajau people. Historically the term “Sama” was used to describe the more land-oriented and settled Sama–Bajau groups, while “Bajau” was used to describe the more sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic groups. Even these distinctions are fading as the majority of Bajaus have long since abandoned boat living, most for Sama–style piling houses in the coastal shallows. Today, the greatest feature distinguishing the “Bajau” from the “Sama” is their poverty.


The origin of the word Bajau is not clear cut. It is generally accepted that these groups of people can be termed Bajau, though they never call themselves Bajau. Instead, they call themselves with the names of their tribes, usually the place they live or place of origin. They accept the term Bajau because they realize that they share some vocabulary and general genetic characteristic such as in having darker skin, although the Simunuls appear to be an exception in having fairer skin.

British administrators in Sabah, labeled the Sama as Bajau and put Bajau in their birth certificates as their race. During their time in Malaysia, some have started labeling themselves as their ancestors called themselves, such as Simunul. For political reasons and to ensure easy access to the Malaysian special privileges granted to Malays, many have started calling themselves Malay. This is especially true for recent Filipino migrants.

For most of their history, the Bajau have been a nomadic, seafaring people, living off the sea by trading and subsistence fishing. The boat dwelling Bajau see themselves as non-aggressive people. They kept close to the shore by erecting houses on stilts, and traveled using lepa-lepa, handmade boats which many lived in. Although historically originating from the southern Philippine coasts, Sabahan Sama legend narrates that they had originated from members of the royal guard of the Sultan of Johor, after the fall of the Malay Malacca empire, who settled along the east coast of Borneo after being driven there by storms. Another version narrates that they were escorting the Sultan’s bride, but the bride was later kidnapped by the Sultan of Brunei. The fact that the Bajau-Sama languages belong to the Philippine branch of Malayo-Polynesian languages would substantiate the anthropological origins of the Bajau groups to be from the Philippines, and put the origin legends down to the historic Malay-centric influence of Bajau culture.

However, there are traces that Sama people came from Riau Archipelago especially Lingga Island more than 300 years ago. It is believed by some that the migration process of Samah to North West Borneo took place more than 100 years earlier, starting from trade with the Empire of Brunei. With the fall of the legitimate Sultan of Johor due to being overthrown by Bugis immigrants, Sama people fled to the west coast of North Borneo where they felt safe to live under the protection of the Brunei Sultanate. That’s why native Kadazan-Dusun call Sama people as “tuhun (people of) Sama” or “tulun (people of) Sama” in their dialects, the form of recognition before western civilization found Borneo. It was believed that Sama people are not from the royalty of the Sultanate, but loyal workers, craftsmen, boat builders and farmers that fled from cruelty of ethnic cleansing in chaotic Johor during aggression of the Bugis taking over the throne of Johor.

Today the number of Bajau who are born and live primarily at sea is diminishing, partially due to hotly debated government programs which have moved Bajau on to the mainland.Currently, there exists a huge settlement of Filipino Bajau in Pulau Gaya, off the Sabah coast. Many of them are illegal immigrants on the Malaysian island. With the island as a base, they frequently enter Sabah and find jobs as manual laborers.

Discrimination of Bajau (particularly from the dominant Tausūg people who have historically viewed them as ‘inferior’ and less specifically from the Christian Filipinos) and the continuing violence in Muslim Mindanao, have driven many Bajau to begging, or to migrate out of the country. They usually resettle in Malaysia and Indonesia, where they are less discriminated against.

Demographics and religion

The various Bajau sub-groups vary culturally, linguistically, and religiously. Religion can vary from a strict adherence to Sunni Islam, forms of folk Islam, to animistic beliefs in spirits and ancestor worship. There is a small minority of Christians.


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