Spirit of the Sulu Sea

A blue, cloudless sky. The limpid Sulu Sea. Wooden huts hovering over the water on stilts. Narrow, handmade canoes docked in front of each. In the hull of an indigenous lepa-lepa boat, a woman cooks a fish over an open fire. Children paddle between the huts in their own canoes. A young woman washes clothes and hangs them out to dry on a clothesline strung across a hut’s tiny front porch. An older man plays with a little child and laughs.

These are the so-called Sea Nomads; the Bajau people.

The Bajau inhabit the Sulu Sea, navigating between the islands of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia in small boats. They are a stateless people, with no official nationality or documents. They receive no state entitlements. If one of them falls ill, hospitals won’t treat them. Their children don’t go to school. All they have to rely on is the sea.

The ocean is their food, shelter, and book of life. The sea is everything: a god to love, and a god to fear. Their souls belong to the sea. They love its glory, irresistibility, anger, and unpredictability.

So who are they, and where did they come from? How can they survive without hospitals, markets, or other things a human being needs for routine daily life?

According to legend, the Bajau originally came from Johor, the southern part of the Malay Peninsula. They were on their way to the Sulu Archipelago to escort a princess named Dayang Ayesha for marriage to the ruler of Sulu. However, the sultan of Brunei was also in love with the princess. On the way to Sulu, the Bajau were attacked by the Bruneians in the high seas. The princess was taken captive and married to the sultan of Brunei instead. The escorts, having lost the princess, decided to settle down along the coasts of Borneo, Sulawesi, and the Sulu Archipelago, rather than return to Johor.

From the moment I learned about the way of life of the Bajau, I was fascinated. I yearned to see them in action and somehow connect with them. I had already fallen in love with the ocean at nine years old when I read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. As a boy living in a small town surrounded by high mountains, even my dream of seeing the ocean was far-fetched. The ocean was entirely inaccessible to me, and yet it felt so close to my heart. I wrote quotes from Treasure Island on the walls of my room, and I used to sing while walking on my way to school: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest, yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” I imagined myself with a long, scraggly beard and a patch on my eye, living in a pirates ship, and wandering from island to island looking for treasure and adventure. Sometimes this daydream was so real, I thought I could feel a faint ocean breeze on my face.

Now it is decades later, and I have had the good fortune of being able to travel the world. At last I am here in Pulau Bodgaya, and it still feels like a dream. A local guide helps to make it real.

A small canoe passes our boat. I look at the canoe and see a ten-year-old boy slowly paddling by and looking intently into the water. He suddenly stops the canoe and dives into the ocean. 

“He’s fishing,” my guide tells me. 

“Fishing?” I ask. “But he has no fishing gear.”

“He doesn’t need any. Just watch.”

Almost two minutes go by. The boy finally reappears, takes a deep breath, and dives again. Two more minutes pass, and he’s still under the water.

“Just wait,” the guide tells me with a smile on his face. Suddenly the boy comes out from the water and jumps back into the canoe. In his left hand he is holding a foot-long fish!

The boy paddles the canoe to the front of a hut, climbs a ladder with one hand, and gives the fish to a younger girl whom I assume is his sister. Without a word, she starts cleaning the fish with a small knife. The boy picks up a small radio, and puts it on his shoulder to listen. His catch was clearly just business as usual. It seems that at that moment, his mind is already elsewhere, and nothing is more important than the music from the radio.

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