60 Minutes blog

Allison Langdon: The Sea Gypsies

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They call them the sea gypsies, nomadic fishermen roaming the waters to our north, who are born, live and even die at sea.

For the Bajau Laut, the sea is their lifesource. They eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they sell any excess catch to pay for fresh water and fuel.

But years and years of overfishing by commercial trawlers has left the ocean they depend on a barren wasteland and now their way of life is under threat.

I travelled to Borneo to meet these warm and generous people and learn about their plight. Their homes are rickety old wooden boats, overcrowded with three or more families. On the boat I travelled on there were 17 people – there’s no such thing as privacy when you’re with the sea gypsies.

The Sea Gypsies are amazing fishermen, and their technique, well, it has to be seen to be believed. They can hold their breath for three minutes or more at a time. We kept hearing stories about a man named Sulbin, who is considered the greatest Bajau Laut fisherman. When we finally met Sulbin - a short, sinewy man, who spoke very little but never seemed to stop smiling – he invited us to join him as he hunted for his family’s dinner.

Sulbin and I jumped into his tiny wooden canoe and, as I paddled, Sulbin stuck his head in the water looking for his prey. Once spotted, he put on his homemade goggles, did his “unique” breathing exercises which involved smoking a cigarette and drinking a red bull, then with his homemade spear in his hand he gently popped over the edge of the boat and disappeared.

For his first dive, I stayed on the surface and kept an eye on my watch. Even though I’d been told he could hold his breath longer than any other Bajau Laut fisherman, I was starting to panic when I noted he’d been down there for more than two-and-a-half minutes. Then from the murky depths below, I spotted a figure emerging – it was Sulbin, with a sizeable stingray on the end of his spear. He had it, dinner for his wife and three children.

But we were not done, Sulbin wanted to go down again, and this time I put on my fins and followed him in. What happened next is disputed between myself and the rest of the crew, producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Andy Taylor and sound recordist Chick Davey. I KNOW I managed to hang down there for 25 seconds (which is still quite pathetic) but they claim it was closer to 15 seconds. Lucky, I have an ally in Tom our editor, who timed it with me as he cut the story, so I’m sticking with my version of events.

What I found hardest after following Sulbin 20 metres to the ocean floor was staying at that depth without weights. Watching Sulbin, though, stride across the seabed like some ancient hunter was extraordinary. The pressure on his body is enormous, his heart rate slowing to 25 beats per minute. And, of course, a long time after I’d already surfaced he reappeared with another stingray on the end of his spear.

Life for the Bajau Laut is incredibly difficult. A few days after we met Sulbin, we got word that his three-month-old son, Chris, had died, from a suspected case of cholera. Sulbin has lost seven of his nine children to sickness. When we sent our condolences to Sulbin and his family, we were surprised, and humbled, when he invited us to the farewell for his beloved son. I watched Sulbin and his wife chant their prayers with tears flowing down my cheeks, but it was not until a moment at the very end of the ceremony that Sulbin started to weep, and that just broke my heart. How can someone say goodbye to so many of their children.

The Bajau Laut have no access to medical treatment. They don’t belong to any country, and when they try to come on to land to either sell their fish or find a doctor they are often arrested and put in prison as they have no papers, no proof of their identity. The women give birth on the boats and if something goes wrong often both mother and child will die.

Helen Brunt is a British anthropologist who is trying to help the Bajau Laut. She’s quite young, around 30, has learnt their language, and is now lobbying countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia to recognise the sea gypsies so they won’t have to fear arrest when they step onto land.

The Bajau Laut are quite happy remaining at sea, it is their home. Nohara, a young mother on our boat, told me that she gets “land sickness” much like we can get seasick. She hates stepping foot on land because it doesn’t feel natural. Nohara and her family were such welcoming people. With space onboard their old boat already at a premium, they happily invited us to live alongside them. It’s a magical way of life, but I’ll be honest I really struggled with it. At one point, I was sitting at the back of the boat with Helen and Nohara and I felt things dropping onto my head. When I checked, I noticed they were maggots! Drying on the roof of the boat were scores of stingrays and they were covered in thousands of the wriggly creatures – I still shudder when I think of it. And there were other challenges. I ate fish heads for breakfast as I didn’t wish to offend them, and had the toilet pointed out to me. It was a small square hole at the back of the boat, about two metres from where the meals are cooked. When I queried the lack of privacy, I was told to wrap a sarong around me. I decided I wasn’t that desperate to go, after all.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of our stay onboard the boat was the sleeping arrangements - a wooden floor, 3m by 5m. We’d all lie down, shoulder to shoulder on the hard floor and try to sleep. It made for some very long, uncomfortable nights. On our very first night – a huge storm hit. Lightning lit up the night sky and the strong winds blew pots and pans from the boat, which had the men scrambling into the water. It was no drier onboard, every inch of that boat leaked and in the end any hope of sleep was abandoned by all of us, except Nohara’s grandfather, who must be about 70. He slept through the whole thing.

Our time with the Bajau Laut was truly amazing. This is how they’ve been living for centuries. They’ve travelled great distances, always relying on the ocean for all their needs. There are stories that long before the white settlement of Australia the Bajau Laut made it to our waters. There is said to be evidence of this in Aboriginal paintings up in the Top End. I hope with all my heart that people like Nohara can continue to live traditionally, but with overfishing and the threat of pirates in their waters I worry that the Bajau Laut will disappear. Thankfully, there are wonderful people like Helen Brunt who’ve taken up their fight.

User comments
This is a really well written article. I just wonder how these people have survived through the years without dieing off.
I wonder are they "Sa Lones" of Burma?

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