• October 29, 2014

We Are What We Eat: Diving for Dinner With the Sea Gypsies

Matthieu Paley’s visual food diary tacks from the steamy jungle of the Bolivian Amazon to the crystal waters of the Sulu Sea in Malaysia, Borneo. Over the coming weeks, we will be taking you with us as Paley travels the globe on assignment for National Geographic in search of our ancestral ties to the food we eat.

February 2014

Water, water everywhere, lapping at your house. Your house is your boat. The ocean is your food source, and it’s the bluest kind of blue. You are a true Bajau.

Her face dusted in bedak sejuk, a cooling powder made of rice and pandan leaves, a Bajau girl paddles out to visit friends in stilt houses.
Her face dusted in bedak sejuk, a cooling powder made of rice and pandan leaves, a Bajau girl named Alpaida paddles out to visit friends in stilt houses.

I am on a search to find people who live almost exclusively of the food they get in the ocean. And after much debate, I have set my eyes on the Bajau, also known as Sea Gypsies. I am a real water baby, so this assignment is really exciting for me. I fell in love with the ocean early on. As a teenager living in rainy Normandy, my room was plastered with Hawaiian windsurfing posters; Robby Naish was my living god. Nowadays, whenever I am home in my adopted Turkish village on the Aegean Sea, I am glued to my WindGuru app—checking the wind forecast for ideal kitesurfing conditions. The feeling of freedom, far out in the ocean, is addictive. I always felt that my heart is out at sea and my head lost somewhere on a cold pass up in the Himalaya—due west of Nanga Parbat, to be precise.

Picture of a Bajau family and a coral fish
Left: A mother and her sons grab an early dinner of fish and cassava diner at the stern of her houseboat, or lepa-lepa. Large birds are kept as pets, much like we keep cats or dogs on land.
Right: A coral fish is speared by a Bajau fisherman. The Bajau free dive, mostly catching coral fish. Fish such as tuna live in waters too deep to be hunted.

By now, my editor Pamela Chen and I are getting a better grasp at what we are aiming at, as far as images go. Color themes are becoming apparent, emerging as a way to tie the images together. But I am also striving to photograph the human body in connection to the food that sustains it. I like this concept. Photographing the act of eating is not always very appetizing, and it’s almost too expected. I want something else …

WATCH: The Bajau give new meaning to eating fresh from the sea.

It’s a strange bit of theatre. Tarumpit’s body is lying across his dugout canoe. One of his feet is tucked into a cool orange handmade fin which is slowly propelling him. His left arm, stretched out into the water, helps him to keep his balance. He is wearing an old diving mask. He pushes forward slowly, head half submerged, gauging the depth and scanning the bottom of the sea. He is on a hunt. He takes a breath, and I wonder if he has seen something. I am almost as bare as he is, trying to catch up in the water next to him.

My camera is heavily dressed though, snugly fitted into an underwater housing. It’s the first time I am doing underwater photography and I have borrowed my seven year-old son’s mask, much to his pride. I love mixing a physical exercise—swimming—with photography. Tarumpit leans up, takes off his shirt and grabs his spear. I check my camera settings nervously, holding on to his canoe. This is it … the first dive. He steps out and keeps his eyes firmly on the bottom. There he goes. I take a deep breath and follow behind.

Picture of an octopus on a spear
Tarumpit spears a fresh catch.

His jeans, rippling in the water with every kick, match the blue landscape. Out of a hole glides an octopus. Suddenly, it is lifted off the bottom, a spear in its lower body. The tentacles touch Tarumpit’s feet. There is the connection I was looking for. I am shooting frantically, enveloped in a cloud of black ink. We swim back up for air. Tarumpit climbs in his canoe and decompresses his ears, leaning his head back, looking up.

A Bajau family cooks a dinner of coral fish over open flames.  They live year-round on their boat, known as a lepa.
A Bajau family cooks a dinner of coral fish over open flames on their lepa-lepa.

On the way home, we pass a larger boat, a lepa-lepa. This is the original Bajau dwelling, the real deal I am told. Women give birth on the boat. Boys become men. They cook coral fish at the stern, over an open fire. They freedive to hunt fish and get scallops or sea cucumbers. At low tide on the full moon, they collect sea urchins. Their entire lives play out on their boats. I get on board and sit at the prow. Two teenagers, Alpaida and Asmania, join me. They have brought a tiny vanity case and giggle while I photograph them studying themselves in the mirror.

Most Bajau living on lepa-lepa are stateless. They navigate on the Sulu Sea, doing coastal sailing between islands of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Because of this lifestyle, they cannot get proper identification papers. If they get sick, hospitals on land won’t treat them and they might get arrested.

Picture of a baby sleeping next to a plate of abalone and a fisherman holding an octopus
A Bajau fisherman clutches an octopus he speared after diving from his boat. Except for a dish made of ground cassava, all the Bajau’s food comes from the sea. A Bajau baby naps by a pan of abalone that will be his family’s dinner.

Tarumpit’s family home is a bamboo hut on stilts, a three-minute canoe ride from shore. There are 15 or so huts, scattered evenly. In the background, a volcano, covered in lush vegetation, stands proudly. At low tide, you can walk between these huts, the water up to your neck. There is a ballet of canoes going between houses, children chattering aboard—canoes parked in front of the houses, some half filled with water; canoes with men returning from morning hunts. We “park” and climb up the ladder.

In the quiet breeze, this house is a charming haven: the whispering waves, the creaking of the poles, the baby sleeping in a hammock hanging from the ceiling and Tarumpit, cleaning the octopus. The cracks in the wooden floor create lines of fluorescent blue. Sitting cross-legged, a boy drops a line through one of them. The lure is made out of a piece of flounder skin. He hooks an eel that twists around like a snake and somehow gets away, sliding back to freedom, into the ocean.

Next, Matthieu’s travels take him to the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan, where he joins a group of women gathering firewood.


The Evolution of Diet“, featured in the September issue, is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month “Future of Food” series. Follow Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.

Related story: Spring in Crete Means a Feast of Wild Greens  
Related story: Foraging in the Amazon Rainforest  
Related story: In the Arctic, It’s All About Meat  
Related story: The High Altitude Diet of Afghanistan’s Nomads  
Related story: Documenting Dinners Around the World

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. cally
    January 7, 2015

    the ‘bajau laut’ or the sea bajau wont leave the sea, they only set foot on the land to barter necessities. but they are some sea bajau that stays near the land or on land -modern sea bajau. these sea bajau stays at the sea because it’s their choice

  2. nuha
    December 12, 2014

    indonesia people ?

  3. jamdhid
    November 26, 2014

    Every regin has own problms like pajeu .!…Eve

  4. w.m.a
    November 21, 2014

    The Bajau goes through a very tough life. We should be grateful with what we already have rather than what we want to have. Seeing the conditions of the Bajau’s lifestyle… I may say is interesting. Glory be to Allah. However, it sounds nasty that the these folks aren’t allowed to be admitted to the hospitals on land. The sea is filled with many dangerous creatures. I hope the Bajaus know what theyre doing. Masha Allah. They have children.

  5. Balachandru
    November 14, 2014

    Good job paley I’m looking forward for your upcoming assignment

  6. viral shah
    November 12, 2014

    their residency is a land which got nothing and their job is floating on water whole day catching foods…… that is all for them

  7. Ramzan
    November 10, 2014

    plzzzzz show me full movie

  8. dana
    November 10, 2014

    Some bajaus in the philippines left that kind of life and prefered to wander around the urban area begging. Through this footage, it’s nice for me to see how they were before they left for the city and i think this life is much better than loitering around the city and catching alms.

  9. Amelia McGrath
    November 5, 2014

    Love that short clip. Some really nice shots in there. Can’t wait to see more!

  10. Meena Pillai
    November 5, 2014

    Appears to be an an oddly satisfying life for the Bajau. Never heard about sea gypsies before. Thank you national Geographic!

    October 31, 2014

    this shows a very different and new way of living which seems to be hidden from the real world .. thanks for showing us this side of human dwelling via this beautiful article .

  12. mia
    October 30, 2014

    can we be a little more worried about these humans than the birds ?

  13. Dennis
    October 30, 2014

    Why not make shelter on the islands and go fishing during the day? Do they also get the cigarettes fresh from the sea?

  14. mactemo
    October 30, 2014

    Simplemente asombroso!!…gracias

  15. isaac
    October 30, 2014

    its just incribles

  16. mira regmi
    October 29, 2014

    actually, i am interested to study different food habits of people, i regularly watch your different research and photography, it is nice one

  17. Carina Marklund
    October 29, 2014

    Very fascinating to see a way of living so different from ours, these people must be very skilled to manage a functioning life. But it hurts to se that they keep birds in captivity. For us who cant imagine a life without animals in the family, appreciated for their personalities and individualities, keeping a bird from its flight is appalingly cruel

  18. amaury avila
    October 29, 2014

    That’s amazing wao nice pic good job

  19. MMwasimba
    October 29, 2014

    People can survive almost on anything!

  20. fotografo boda malaga
    October 29, 2014

    increibles fotos

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