The Sea Gypsies of Mabul Island, Borneo, Malaysia

Stepping off the boat at Mabul island in Borneo, Malaysia, there is a long jetty that runs to the shore, a jetty that divides two worlds. On one side, there is a beautiful, rugged and almost deserted strip of beach bordered by palm trees, hiding the simple, yet comfortable huts of a scuba diving resort behind it. In stark contrast, the other side is strewn with ramshackle stilt houses, wooden boats and innumerable children, a higgledy-piggledy village that is home to the Bajau people.

The Bajau are an ethnic group of sea nomads, or sea gypsies, indigenous to south-east Asia. Historically, the Bajau were born, lived and died at sea, living on houseboats and surviving by trading and subsistence fishing. They are probably best known for their ability to free-dive, plunging to depths of 10 to 20 meters for 5 minutes at a time to look for sea cucumbers and pearls and to hunt fish. They have even described feelings of land-sickness when being on terra firma for too long.

The sight of this village, which looked like a small shanty-town was utterly captivating: women washing and hanging clothes out to dry; kids playing naked in the water; colourful longboats going out to fish; a family preparing dinner on a lepa-lepa (a traditional boat), men snoozing and escaping the midday sun in a hammock hanging between the stilts of the house.

There is little interaction between tourists and Bajau people and it’s mostly limited to reciprocal glances from opposite sides of the jetty. Although some Bajau, who have Malaysian citizenship, work as cleaners and cooks for the island’s dive resorts, a large majority of this ethnic group remains stateless and does not have the permission to work legally.

Nevertheless, I did have a chance contact with some of the children as I was sitting reading my book on the beach one day. A group of Bajau kids wandered past and spotted a bunch of bananas on the neighbouring sun-lounger. They stopped, gazed at the bananas and then turned to me, pointing at the bananas. I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head, attempting to communicate that they weren’t mine to give. They stood there another five minutes until they saw my camera and started to pose, wanting to have their photos taken. While I was shooting them and showing them the results, the owner of the bananas returned and the impromptu photo shoot was forgotten as they sweetly begged for the bananas. Although I was no longer of interest, I was able to capture their ecstatic expressions as they successfully returned home with the bananas.

You can visit the following sites to learn more about the lives of the Bajau including the current problems they face with changing and destructive fishing techniques, statelessness and poverty:

The Aquatic Ape
Last of the Sea Nomads by James Morgan
Article on The Guardian
A Case Study of the Sea Bajau in Pulau Mabul

Photo Equipment used: Nikon D600 + Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Kemal Kaya
    Feb 01, 2013 @ 14:02:08

    I was there 2 years ago. An interesting island and village. All kids were playing in the see and they had awesome smile on their face. I love this island. Nice spot also for diving. Great photos Ilona.


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