Legends: Life Aquatic

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Photo by Torpen Venning.

Legend has it that when a princess from Johor was carried adrift by the hands of a heavy swell and lost in the depths of the Sulu Sea, her aggrieved father ordered his subordinates to comb the ocean and not return until they’d found her. Out of the murk of this myth emerged the Bajau people, an assemblage of seafaring indigenous groups of Southeast Asia’s Moro ethnicity. Today they’re celebrated underwater hunters. The Bajau can free-dive up to a hundred feet below water, walk squarely across the seafloor as if they were crossing the street, hunt their catch, and calmly float back up to the surface — all in one breath. They have the greatest daily apnea (meaning suspension of breath, from the Greek word for breathe) diving time reported in humans.

Known collectively as the Bajau to outsiders, these groups identify each other by the names of their tribes, speak some ten languages and hail from the islands of the Phillipines’ Sulu Archipelago, coastal Mindanao and northern Borneo. Traditionally, they are a nomadic people subsisting off of the sea and its fruits – mostly pelagic fish and sea cucumbers – and bunk in houseboats built on stilts atop coral reefs, some as far as two miles out from shore. At times, Bajau are even born at sea, on handmade lepa-lepa sailing boats, and report feeling “landsick” when circumstances force them on to terra firma.

Bajau children are raised to adapt to life at sea from an early age, developing traits that supersede their land-dwelling counterparts twofold, such as underwater sight. They are put to practice as babies, training the muscles in their eyes to constrict and let in more light. Their well-hydrated, lean bodies make better use of oxygen than those with more body fat, leaving them more buoyant and better able to stroll across the ocean bottom, at times, for up to five minutes. Young Bajau are made to deliberately rupture their ear drums and after a week of dizziness, bleeding and bed rest, are then able to dive painlessly. As a result, many elder Bajau are hard of hearing.

But the number of nomadic ocean-going Bajau continues to dwindle, in part because of controversial government resettlement programs and nearby conflicts in Muslim Mindanao that force them to migrate, mostly to Malaysia and Indonesia. Then there are some sea walkers whose family members have died to the bends, a condition that affects deep-water divers when they ascend to the surface too rapidly and are killed by nitrogen bubbles that enter their bloodstream. Those who dive the deepest without any extra equipment are at the greatest risk for compression sickness: cramps, paralysis or death. But they resist this and continue to dive freely, choosing an aquatic life over one on the mainland, forever adrift in the blue of the Sulu Sea.

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