written by Tyler Merkel (based on notes and interviews with Simon Straetker)
Indonesia. The home of komodo dragons, aquamarine seawater, and ancient Hindu temples. It’s the world’s largest archipelago, with more than 17,000 islands spanning three time zones. Most map makers declare Indonesia as our world’s last great frontier, since it hasn’t been fully explored (only 6,000 of the islands have been named, and even fewer are occupied). Yet, the focus of our adventure wasn’t to discover a new island, rather we journeyed to the remotest corners of Southeast Asia to find Indonesia’s perpetual wanderers: the Bajau sea gypsies.
Before we dive in, I should probably explain how I started making travel documentaries in the first place. Back in 2015, Markus Mathus was searching for a filming partner for his upcoming project on indigenous tribes. That’s when my video popped onto his Facebook feed. So, he called me up and asked if I wanted in.
Two years later, Markus and I have embarked on four trips to the most remote places in the world. We’ve sailed down the turbulent waters of the Amazon, scrambled up Namibia’s blood orange dunes, and trudged across South Sudan’s dusty golden plains.
Also, if that last reference to the plains of South Sudan piqued your interest, you can check out my last blog post. It’s filled with near death adventures, political intrigue, and plenty of photos of the spectral Ankole-Watusi. Give it a glance!
But back to the story. You might be wondering why would do we do this? The answer is this– to portray, photograph, and make real the rapid changes that climate change and other, sometimes unforeseen influences of the modern world have on these remote lands and the people who live in them. To make real that which has been rendered invisible by insurmountable geography.
After a brief reprieve in Germany, we were finally ready for our next excursion: Southeast Asia.
On this expedition, we set out to meet, mingle with, and learn from the Bajau people. For centuries the Bajau people have lived entirely on their boats as sea gypsies, untethered to the land. That is, until around thirty years ago. Now the majority of these wandering seafarers have chosen to settle down into stilt villages.
Our first stop was Wakatobi National Park, a region that’s universally adored by scuba divers and oceanographers alike, since it contains over 940 fish species and over 700 species of coral (for comparison, the Atlantic/Caribbean region has fewer than 70 species). The Wakatobi waters provide the absolute perfect conditions for coral growth: the water is crystal clear, the sea’s temperatures constantly hover at 27 C, and depth typically caps off at 20 meters, (which provides the coral with plenty of light). Finally, the waves aren’t violent, even in torrential storms. Any slight variation in any of these traits would hinder reef growth.
After Wakatobi we headed for Mabul, where encountered some of the last Bajau sea gypsies living completely nomadically.
Our team consisted of Markus Mathus, the filmmaker Janis Klinkenberg, soundgirl Svenja Christ and lastly me, Simon Straetker. We didn’t have a guide this time around, so we just had to coax some foreign friends into giving us impromptu tours.
Up first was the otherworldly Bajau village of Sampela, in Wakatobi.
DAY 1: Sampela
How do I even describe this place? Sampela is a village floating in the middle of the sea, built entirely on stilts. It’s an island without a scrap of land at its foundation, a normal village transplanted onto a shallow patch of aquamarine sea, complete with delicate bridges connecting one home to the next. Over the years the Bajau people have simply wedged wooden foundation poles into the reef below, and the coral accepts it gladly—almost as if the village was simply an extension of the reef’s growth. The symbiotic result is illogical, fragile, and above all, enchanting.
As a whole, the Bajau community is not wealthy, nor are they poor. Their villages are often equipped with healthcare facilities, schools, and mini-mosques. For our first day on Sampela we just pieced together conversations of broken English (and even more broken Bajau) with the locals, and wandered the village until the sun dipped below the horizon. Near dark, we returned to our hotel on Hoga Island—an almost invisible sliver of green in the distance.
DAY 2: Hoga Island
On our second day, we woke up at the crack of dawn and roamed the shore to document Indonesia’s trash plague. We found that this unnamed beach in Wakatobi, like many other Indonesian beaches, was covered in rubbish. It was unsettling to be on this remote island and continually stumble across fields of plastic bags, yogurt cups, soda bottles, chip bags and big rig oil canisters. We filmed Markus sifting through the junk.
This was also the day we met Pondang, a fast friend, savvy navigator, and incurable yes man who became our Bajau guide for the majority of our trip. At first, I thought Pondang was the most agreeable person I had ever known. He answered every question we asked with a quick and confident “yes.”
“Are there scorpionfish on this reef?”
“Are there any true nomads living in this village?
“Do people dynamite fish on this island?”
We started to suspect that perhaps “yes” was the only English word our guide knew. So we asked, “Pondang, are you a terrorist?” and he said “Yes! ...wait, no!” Caught, Pondang let out a laugh so infectious we couldn’t help but to join in.
DAY 3: Sampela
On the third day we got to dive with some Bajau fishermen, who are renowned for being unfairly super human at free diving. Markus meant to snap photos while snorkeling, but after a few minutes in the water, we quickly figured out our gear was far too buoyant, so we would need to strap on some hefty weight belts. So our only option was scuba diving—and we were a tad worried.
I mean, Markus and I are both licensed, but neither of us had been diving in years. Also, we were used to having divemasters to calculate our weight, oxygen levels, and to make sure we didn’t freak out and explode our lungs. No divemasters around here though. Our fear was compounded by the fact that we forgot a decent chunk of our scuba equipment at the rental shop.
So we did what anyone else would do in our situation: we Googled “how to scuba dive.” It didn’t help. We jumped into the water anyway, and luckily our muscle memory kicked in. No exploded lungs this trip.
During our dive we photographed the Bajau hunt. The process is impressive—the divers strap on wooden and glass goggles and swim on the surface looking down. Once they spot a fish they take a deep breath, dive down, leisurely swim along the seafloor and harpoon dinner. None of the divers had any problem diving twenty meters repeatedly. We later learned that Bajau men cut their eardrums when they’re young to avoid the effects of varying pressure in their ears. The downside, of course is that most Bajau men are deaf by their forties.
After 20 minutes, the men had rounded up over 40 fish. We clambered up into the boat, cut open some iridescent yellowtail, spritzed on some lemon and indulged in a long lunch.
DAY 4: Sampela
On our fourth morning, the islands were hit with a torrential storm. We hid under a bungalow and interviewed an older man about just how much the island had changed in the past two decades. He lamented that there used to be so many more fish, but later he also happily stated that local schools now supported more children and supplied them with uniforms, two luxuries which hadn’t been afforded to anyone in his youth. We asked if he was content with his lot in life and whether he desired anything beyond his small village. He replied with an assured no, saying “I’m happy. I don’t need anything at all.”
DAY 5: Sampela
Halfway into our trip Markus and I had the opportunity to do a homestay in the Bajau village of Sampela. Which was lovely until Markus and I broke...well, everything. It all started when Markus hung a shirt over an electrical wire to dry. It snapped, of course. But it appeared as if the wire had been mended with duct tape before, so I tried to repair it by slapping on some more. When in Rome, right? Well I’m not exactly the most talented DIY electrician, so the wire started sparking furiously and all the lights in the neighbouring houses flicked off. At this point, our operation was blown. But our host family was so gracious with us, and managed to get the lights powered up and working in a matter of minutes.
DAY 6: Sampela
This afternoon we joined the Bajau people for some net fishing. How it works: a few fishermen climb into a small, three meter canoe. The Bajau at the back steers with a long wooden pole, much like a Venetian boat guide, while the other men slip a 100 meter long net into the water on the right side of the boat. Then they strike the water on the left side of the canoe with the steering rod, scaring the fish straight into the net. The Bajau then pull up the net, and voila, a canoe full of fish in under an hour.
DAY 7: Sampela
This was our final day in the Wakatobi region. So we went to a nearby reef and swam along it until the coral dropped off into a black abyss. The lighting was just right and we captured some stellar shots of the Bajau hunting, free diving, and swimming circles around us.
Later that afternoon, the clouds blotted out the sun and we couldn’t capture footage that we desperately needed. We realized our GoPro could film in these poor conditions, but anyone who uses one knows that they are incredibly hard to keep still, especially when underwater currents constantly toss you in random directions. So in a last ditch effort, we duct taped the GoPro to a monopod and the handlebar of my gimbal, and to our surprise it worked!
DAY 8: Kendari
We spent the whole of this day on a ferry that goes between Wakatobi and Kendari. Oddly enough, it was one of my favorite days. I really love the feeling of slow traveling as opposed to hopping from plane to plane. Slow travel can be meditative (and these ferries go especially slow). On this sedate sea commute I had enough time to examine every lush mountain, patch of seaweed and underwater maze of coral—all sights that you pass by in an instant when you’re on a plane.
That’s not to say the voyage was complete serenity, though. As we journeyed further out to sea I spotted my fellow passengers tossing their rubbish into the ocean. We learned that it’s quite ordinary for Indonesians to throw their garbage into the sea. I was mystified. Even worse, the boat didn’t even have any trash bins, so it seemed like the ferry company was enabling people’s sea littering tendencies.
I didn’t get it. Why treat the ocean like one big garbage bin?
The Indonesian government tried to squash the problem in 2016 by introducing a plastic bag levy to branded retailers, but many environmentalists have slammed the campaign because the tax is too low to make an impact and plastic bags only make up a small percentage of the waste. To make matters worse, many people seem to prefer the aesthetic of modern plastic packaging. Biodegradable wrappers such as banana leaves are almost considered passé.
The government has also set up an expanding network of “trash banks” (there are currently over 3,800 nationwide). These makeshift dumps give people a small chunk of change for their recyclables.
Most people estimate the real solution to the trash crisis is two fold: First the government (or a well monied NGO) needs to create a real, convenient waste disposal system, where the government collects and properly disposes of rubbish. They also need to switch out current plastics with biodegradable options that leave no toxic residue (so those who like throwing their yogurt cups into the ocean won’t contribute to the problem).
The next morning we set out to witness what had to be the strangest sight in all of Indonesia: dynamite fishing. One of Pondang’s friends was a career dynamite fisherman and agreed to let us film the process. First we convened at this man’s house, where he showed us his vast stockpile of homemade bombs, all stored in beer bottles.
We tossed a few beer bombs into a boat and paddled out to a sandy bank. Then he casually lit the bomb and tossed it over the side of the boat, just five meters away. The ocean bubbled and we heard a muffled boom. Then a bunch of slack jawed, shell shocked fish floated to the surface. Apparently it’s the pressure, not the blast, that kills them.
Obviously this tactic yields way more spoils than traditional spear and net fishing. But the bomb’s pressure and residual chemicals are swiftly killing the coral. Additionally, this method is too efficient, and the fish population can’t regenerate fast enough. While we were still on the boat we asked him if he was aware that dynamite was killing the reef. “Twenty other people from my village do it,” he replied. “What’s one more person?”
DAY 10: Toreo
The next day, we ventured two hours north in search of the last true Bajau sea nomads. But they are nomads, so predicting their stopovers can’t exactly be accomplished in a single day. The Bajau were nowhere in sight, but we did find some of their spectacular wooden light fishing platforms. That’s right. Light fishing, the most whimsical hunting method ever conceived.
Each platform is topped with a generator and heaps of lamps. After sundown the fishermen paddle out to these wooden islands, start up the generator, and hang the lamps near the water's surface, with a net just below them. Strange as it is, the fish are drawn to the light; so much so that they swim right into the net. The next morning the fishermen return to find their nets bursting.
Still in search of truly nomadic Bajau people, we packed up our gear, hopped onto another wobbly boat and began our journey to Indonesia’s neighbor: Malaysia.
After a few flights and a boat ride we arrived in Mabul, rumoured to be a routine stop for many sea nomads, where they pose in tourist’s photos and sell fish at the markets. Mabul is also one of the best spots in the world to see exotic micro marine life. The island’s endless maze of reefs is choc full of sea critters like frogfish, cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopi, and bobtail squids (just to name a few). It’s a scuba diver’s nirvana.
But would we finally get to meet the Bajau sea nomads?
We would. We knew we were in luck when we spied a few nomad houseboats moored in the harbor, ten meter long vessels distinguished by their harlequin canopies, and quite often a family of five or more living inside.
Apparently, the government is making it impossible for these nomads to create a stable living. In one interview, a Bajau fisherman told us he would like to live in a house on an island but he can’t afford to. Like other nomads, he changes location ten times a year to follow fish migrations. If he didn’t live on a boat, he would require ten different houses on disparate islands to be at the right place, at the right time to catch the fish he needs. But the fact that he lives on a boat renders him stateless in the government’s eyes. It’s a bit of an economical conundrum, where a fisherman’s job and settling down on an island are essentially incompatible choices.
As you’ve probably guessed, Bajau people don’t typically learn English. Thus, most of the resort jobs around Mabul are taken by Filipino immigrants. But we met one exception who would join our travel group: Abdul. He was a rare Bajau who had managed to teach himself English and Mandarin and land a job in Mabul working as a scuba guide. His unique experience meant that he had experienced both Eastern and Western lifestyles. Later that day he confessed that the Bajau people just “worry about today,” while in a Western lifestyle people live for tomorrow. After a little thought, Abdul theorized that the Bajau are far happier than their Western counterparts who are burdened by house payments, demanding jobs and the like. Contrarily, he confessed that he preferred his Western lifestyle in Mabul and couldn’t see himself returning to the Bajau rhythm of life.
We met him on a dive with 120 Chinese tourists, which was such a peculiar excursion. Fifteen minutes into our scuba tour Abdul asked the crowd who could swim (not scuba dive—swim). Only half the group raised their hands. Janis, Svenja and I looked at each other wide eyed and worried everyone was going to die. But Abdul took this all in stride and managed to keep everyone alive.
Lucky for us, the charming Abdul volunteered to be our translator for our final round of interviews. We were all strolling along the shore of Mabul when we spotted a houseboat with 40 stingrays laid across the roof, shriveling in the sun. Without much thought we walked up and thought we could chat with the family for 20 minutes. Instead, we talked for over two hours.
We learned that there were 8 people, spanning three generations, living on this ten meter boat. The vessel was divided into three primary sections: the front segment of the boat was for fishing and storage, which included several boxes neatly packed with gear, clothing, and a few nick knacks. The middle of the boat was a communal space equipped with a single miniature hammock, and lastly, the back end of the boat was outfitted with a kitchen. The family said that each of them had grown up on a boat, and spent their lives flitting from one island to the next, always following the fish.
At the end of the interview it started to storm, so the family tugged down the canopy’s rain covers and the others left to find shelter (there wasn’t room for everyone under the boat’s shelter). But I decided to stay on the boat for a bit longer.
Nothing grand happened—I just played with the kids while the father mended a net and the grandmother diced up a sting ray. But we all kept grinning at one another. When an adventure is finished, it’s these quiet, culturally transcendent moments that stick with you. As a filmmaker, I’m kinda used to being intrusive. It’s hard to bond with other people when your face is hidden behind a camera. So this quiet, camera-free hour was a benison.
In the end, I think our trip could be encapsulated by an interview we had with an older nomad, who managed to live at sea despite being completely blind. He would often go fishing with his sons, but felt quite comfortable on his own and moved around his boat with such ease that we started to doubt he was blind at all. He had said that he lost his sight 6 years ago from habitually staring into the sun’s reflection on the water. But it didn’t make him sad.
At the close of our interview we asked him if he wanted an identity card, so the government could provide healthcare. He smiled at us and laughed “no, it would just get wet anyways.”