The Sea Gypsies of Sabah


On a recent trip to the Tun Sakaran Marine Park in South-East Sabah, Malaysia, shooting for our new book ‘Sensational Seas of Sabah’, I had the opportunity to photograph the ‘nomads of the sea’, the Bajau Laut. The Bajau are the second largest ethnic group in Sabah, and renowned for their seaborne lifestyle. This was an exciting new experience for me, having been purely photographing the marine life of the Maldives and Indonesia over the last few years.

The Bajau’s stilt houses near Boheydulang island are impressive to say the least, and in these homes families live their lives entirely dependant on the ocean, only stepping foot on the mainland town of Semporna occasionally to trade their catch of fish and other seafood.

One afternoon as I was photographing these stilt houses built in the shallow sea grass bed, I exchanged smiles and waves with the women and children of one family who came out to pose on their doorstep.

Meanwhile the men were off fishing at the nearby islands of Mantabuan and Kalapuan to provide the family’s next meal. At Kalapuan Island, this wise, old fisherman was employing a unique method to catch reef octopus by towing a fake, bait octopus above the coral reef to attract a live one which would get caught on the bait’s hooks.

I was amazed by this man’s stamina and determination, constantly paddling along the reef while peering underwater at the bait using an old, leaking mask. Using hand gestures and a few words of Malay I understood he had been out on the water for 5 hours in the hot sun, and had caught just one octopus in that time which he would eat with his family. If he caught one more, then he could sell it or exchange it for water and other provisions.

At Mantabuan Island a Bajau family were fishing for Clams in the shallow reef. The father and his children would duck down and dig up the clams while the mother positioned their boat. Even the elderly grandmother played her part as she sat on the boat and cut out the fleshy clams from their shells.

Damage to the reefs in this area is still clearly visible in some places, caused by illegal dynamite fishing practiced by other local people. However, it’s refreshing to see that many Bajau people like these families still fish on a very basic subsistence level minimising the impact on the marine environment.

If you are interested in filming the Bajau then please contact Scubazoo. We have filmed and set up location filming for several documentaries on the Bajau including Human Planet, Edge of Existence, Passage to Malaysia and many more.