The Bajau people have lived on the water in Southeast Asia for a long time. Because of this, they have changed into sea-dwelling beings with bodies that are unlike any other humans on Earth.
They live on the water in Southeast Asia. They live in boats and get their food from the sea. They don’t even have a place to call home. They don’t have clocks, calendars, birthdays, or other ways to keep track of time. They even have organs and body parts that are different from ours that help them live in the water.
They are the Bajau, who are sometimes called “sea gypsies” because they live on the ocean. They are different from every other human on Earth. In the pictures below, you can see for yourself how they live:
A Brief History of the Bajau
No one knows for sure where the Bajau people came from. But we know enough to be able to figure out where their story is going.
The Bajau are a Malay people group who have almost always lived on the water for hundreds of years. There have been other groups of “sea nomads” in the past, but the Bajau may be the only ones still around today.
They live in the water southwest of the Philippines in Southeast Asia. They are a nomadic people who move from place to place and don’t have any official ties to any of the countries around them.
The Bajau people don’t have an official state record or much written history to call their own. Instead, their history is based on their own unique folklore and traditions, and it is told orally from one generation to the next.
One of these stories that shows the main point of their story is about a man whose real name was Bajau. His people would follow him into the water because the weight of his body would push enough water out of the river that it would overflow, making it easy for them to catch fish.
Eventually, they came to see him only to ask for help catching fish. Other tribes were jealous of how much Bajau helped his people, so they planned to kill him by shooting him with poison arrows. But he made it through, the other tribes gave up, and the Bajau people kept living.
Master of the Ocean
The Bajau people live on long houseboats called lepas. They fish for their main source of income. Most of the time, they live in the waters around Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. They come ashore to trade or get out of bad weather. When people don’t live on boats, they usually live in small houses built on stilts over the water.
Because the Bajau spend so much time in the water from a young age, they have a deep understanding of the ocean that is hard to match. Children learn to swim at a young age and can start fishing and hunting as early as age 8.
Because of this, most Bajau are very good at freediving. They can dive to depths of more than 230 feet, can stay submerged for several minutes at 60 feet, and spend about five hours a day underwater, on average.
In fact, they have changed in ways that make them scientifically different from other people so that they can live on and under the water. In 2018, the journal Cell reported that the Bajau have spleens that are 50 percent bigger than the average person in nearby areas.
When a person dives, the spleen contracts, releasing a supply of oxygenated red blood cells into the bloodstream. If your spleen is bigger, you have more oxygen and can stay underwater longer because you have more red blood cells.
The Bajau have also become very good at seeing underwater. With these skills, they have a better chance of finding things like pearls and sea cucumbers that are hard to find.
Divers spend hours underwater every day, catching fish that weigh between 2 and 18 pounds. They only wear wooden goggles, not wetsuits or flippers, to make diving easier.
Because the Bajau people spend so much time diving, many of them end up with ruptured eardrums from the pressure underwater. Some even do it on purpose to make diving easier.
Aside from diving, they also fish with nets, lines, and spear guns that they make themselves.
Melisssa Ilardo, a geneticist who lived with the Bajau people for three summers, said, “They have full control over their bodies and how they breathe. They spear fish right away without any trouble.”
How the Bajau people live now
More and more Bajau are being forced to live on land today (some groups have long lived on land as there is no one completely unified group of people identified as Bajau). For a number of reasons, it’s possible that the people living now are the last ones who can live off the water.
For one thing, the global fish trade has changed the way the Bajau people fish and their ecosystems.
Because there is more competition for fish, the Bajau have had to start using more commercial methods to catch fish, like using cyanide and dynamite.
The Bajau have also switched to making their boats out of a heavier wood because the lighter wood they used to use came from an endangered tree. For the new boats to work, they need engines, which cost money to run.
Many nomads have also given up their way of life because of the bad reputation it has. When they are accepted by the cultures around them, they can use government programs that give them help and benefits they wouldn’t get otherwise.
But for the Bajau, fishing is more than just a business and water is more than just a resource. The ocean and the creatures that live in it are at the heart of who they are. So, when it comes to conservation, it’s not just about protecting marine life, but also their culture and the waters they’ve lived in for thousands of years.