When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, some said the Bajau Laut survived unscathed.
Morgan: Yes, there are a few areas in Sulawesi that have strong Bajau populations, mostly living ashore. R&K: Why was it important for you to learn how to free dive before starting the project? Morgan: Because a lot of the images are underwater and it would have been too expensive and cumbersome to take in scuba equipment. A Bajau family who has taken up residence on one of the uninhabited islands that line the coast of Sulawesi. R&K: Did you have a special interest or attachment to the ocean before starting this project? Morgan: Originally it was more about their way of life and wanting to make some images of a lifestyle that was disappearing. Morgan: The live reef fish trade essentially relies on Bajau communities diving on compressor (air pumped down through a hose) and then using bottles of cyanide to stun fish and catch them alive. In Torosiaje, many Bajau left their government-provided homes and built this stilt village 1km out to sea. Morgan: I made two trips to two different communities, both about two and a half weeks long. Compressor diving, often in conjunction with cyanide fishing (shown here: the bottle is filled with cyanide that will stun the fish), remains a common practice amongst the Bajau Laut despite being unsustainable, illegal and highly dangerous.
R&K: What is the relationship between the Bajau living ashore and those living at sea? The grouper are transported to a holding facility in Bali, where they are kept in live fish tanks and wait to be flown to Hong Kong and mainland China. R&K: Is there anything to do, in your opinion, to convince fishermen not to use these destructive fishing techniques?


Morgan: I think the only real chance to kill the trade is by setting up alternative livelihood programs. After travelling thousands of miles, the red spotted grouper eventually ends up on a plate in Hong Kong's renowned Jumbo restaurant where at just under a pound it sells for 1000 HK dollars (130 USD). Join our newsletter to get exclusives on where our correspondents travel, what they eat, where they stay.
The worst meal I ever ate in Southeast Asia was at a beautiful candlelit restaurant in Bangkok. The R&K Insider has exclusives on where our correspondents travel, what they eat, where they stay. There were rumors that the traditionally nomadic community, an ethnic group of Malay origin, had such good knowledge of the ocean that they had seen the catastrophe coming and they had moved out to deeper water. Fifty years ago, a lot of Bajau would have lived nomadically at sea but there’s been a lot of pressure on them over the last few decades to move ashore.
I surf and free dive and spend a lot of time in the sea, which is why I was particularly drawn to this story. But then when I found out about the trade in live reef fish and realized the extent of the Bajau’s involvement in cyanide and dynamite fishing, it quickly became an environmental story. One lady I met, Ibu Diana, told me she was born at sea, lived at sea and hopes to die at sea.
There is a perception that the move ashore has been bad for the Bajau but in the same way that people often resist modernization and that it comes with a dissolution of culture. The tale fascinated British photographer James Morgan, who, a few years later, embarked on an adventure to meet the Bajau. There’s a lot of scavenging things from islands to make spear guns and goggles and repairs to boats. Almost inevitably when you look at a culture that lives in close proximity to its ecosystem you end up telling an environmental story, it’s just such a shaping factor.


The reason it’s a problem is that the cyanide devastates the reefs, it gets into currents and can travel for miles down a reef wall, clogging coral polyps and creating a huge amount of by-catch. I went to a village called Torosiaje and then found someone there who was able to take me out to look for people still living at sea.
There’s no doubt that the Bajau life ashore has a whole host of new problems, with malaria and drug and alcohol use, etc. He was especially interested in those who had stayed at sea despite the hardships that had forced most to move ashore.
Also, red grouper (the target species) is now endangered and it’s a key species for coral ecosystems.
But now it’s just a few people who prefer being at sea to living on land, mostly older folk. But work also needs to be done to reduce the demand for live reef fish, and showing that it is caught using cyanide is a powerful way to do that.
Though only very few remain, he felt that something was in danger of dying out with them: their knowledge of the sea. Often, fisherman are paid advances on their earnings which they never quite manage to earn back.
A knowledge that could play an important role in preserving the Coral Triangle and the world’s oceans. At that stage I wasn’t sure if anyone still lived at sea, so it was a bit of a gamble.
There’s also bomb fishing, and a photo from the essay shows a woman who blew her hands off making bombs.



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