Sea Nomads

The boat pictured above is called a lepa-lepa, a 15 foot long, five foot wide watercraft.   While the picture comes from a regatta off the coast of Malaysia in 2008, boats like these are more than just for show.  For many members of and indigenous Malay people called the Bajau, lepa-lepas are their homes.

The Bajau number nearly half a million people in total, but only a rapidly declining minority of them still hold out on a unique tradition: they are seafaring nomads who live out most of their lives on boats, coming ashore only to interact with the rest of the world.  (One can’t trade a fish for a kerosene lamp without coming to the marketplace.)  Many of the sea-bound Bajau are, quite literally, born that way, as their lives begin birthed at sea.   And as one would expect, the Bajau are talented sea hunters — a skill honed by generations of lifetimes at sea.  Bajau divers regular reach depths of more than thirty meters, allowing them to capture and harvest the delicacies out of the reach of mere swimmers.

But this diving skill comes at a price.  Bajau are known to intentionally rupture their eardrums at a young age, allowing them to dive without feeling the pressure against their ears.   Short-term, the rupturing causes dizziness with intermittent bleeding from the ears and nose, in total lasting a week.  Longer term, many Bajau report hearing loss at earlier than typical ages.

Also, Bajau’s mixed use of technology has lead to increased amounts of paralyzations and fatalities.  They’ve learned, collectively, to use compressed air via garden hoses to allow divers to breathe while thirty or more meters underwater, allowing the divers to stay at extreme depths for long lengths of time.  On the other hand, the Bajau have not yet fully understood that at such depths, nitrogen builds up in the divers’ bloodstreams, and without proper decompression, will come down with a bad (and perhaps fatal) case of the bends.


Bonus fact: While living at sea obviously requires unique architecture, so does living in Antarctica, where buildings often look like they were built for moon landings.

From the Archives: Underwater Repair Men: Perhaps a good job for a Bajau who moves to New York?

Related: There isn’t much out there on the Bajau, and the stuff that is available is expensive.  Like, $150 for an e-book expensive.