Scientists say that life began in the oceans. While humans have evolved into land dwellers, there is a unique culture of people who, for centuries, have spent most their lives on the ocean.
When Nahara steps from the boat onto dry land, she begins to feel off balance and dizzy. She describes the feeling as the opposite of seasickness – her people call it land sickness. Nahara, like other Bajau Laut people, was born at sea and has lived there her whole life. Just the thought of stepping onto dry land makes her queasy.
Living a nomadic life in the Coral Sea between Borneo and The Philippines, the Bajau Laut people have existed more intimately with the ocean than any other culture on earth. Although they have been forced to settle permanently on land in recent decades, there are still a few dwindling Bajau Laut communities that continue to call the ocean home.
Families live on houseboats not far from shore and go to land only for fuel or to fix their boats. The ocean provides everything else they need to survive.
Nahara’s children were born on the boat and have adapted to life at sea. Swimming and diving is second nature to them. Their eyesight has even developed in a way that aids underwater vision.
Normally when underwater, pupils expand to let more light in, countering the darker conditions beneath the surface. But bigger pupils mean blurrier vision. For the Bajau Laut, this isn’t the case. Starting at a young age, pupils actually begin to shrink as they head further into the dark water. This helps their vision remain clear, a necessary ability for underwater hunting.
The Bajau Laut are also able to hold their breath for up to five minutes at a time — a breath-taking feat indeed! One diver, Sulbin says that to prepare for a dive, he enters a trance-like state, focusing on his breath. His heart rate slows to 30 beats a minute underwater.
Like Sulbin, the rest of his people have a spiritual connection with the water as well. For them, the surface of the ocean is home, and beneath the surface is a home away from home. They see the ocean as a living entity where spirits exist in the tides, coral reefs, and mangroves.
In fact, their connection with the ocean is so profound that they were able to foresee the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, and save themselves in the nick of time by moving out to deeper water.
The Bajau-Laut represent yet another unique and indigenous culture in danger of extinction due to the destruction of their marine environment. They truly are the last of the sea nomads.