Generations of living underwater have endowed the Bajau Sea Gypsies with mysterious abilities to see clearly without goggles and reduce oxygen consumption to a tiny fraction of normal levels. Brad abandons all of his possessions to live as a gypsy and witness their secrets.
He must learn their ways to survive.
I wake before dawn, my cheekbone smashed against the bare floorboards where I slept. As my eyes focus, I see my drool drip through a gap in the floor, piercing the black, mercurial ocean water below me. Hunger pangs from days of malnourishment remind me that the key to surviving this day lies under that water and I must try again. Stumbling to my feet, my hips and knees throb as my blood circulates again.
A faint blue light filters up through the floor, dancing on a rusted clock that has never worked and a doorway that has never held a door. Barefoot, I stumble outside over a pile of fish bones. I sit on the edge of the weathered porch where fish parts are dried, the only way of preservation on the fringes of the known world.
A Lifetime Underwater
As I stare into the mist, a dense silence envelops me, the dark water consuming any notion of sound. Rustic huts balance precariously on stilts above the ocean, unencumbered by any modern convenience. This is their universe, with the nearest land lying tucked beyond the horizon. Seasons don’t exist here, only generations and the passing days and nights. Most gypsies in this colony don’t even know their age.
As my western concept of time blurs, a faint song emerges through the serenity. It begins with the whispers of husbands praying for safety and success, and continues with the dull drumbeat of a hundred wooden dugout canoes clapping against docks as they are loaded for the perilous journey and the sharp whisks of wives sweeping bare floors to a shine. As the sun peeks above the horizon, the gypsy divers set off in harmony, beneath the chorus of waking life.
Nearby, a crowd gathers in anticipation as a mother holds her newborn son underwater, praying that the sea gods will bestow amphibious abilities needed for a lifetime of scavenging to feed their growing family. For several millennia, small, isolated families thrived in perfect balance with the ocean, taking only what they needed. International aid organizations broke that bond by herding and colonizing the nomadic gypsies into permanent settlements. Still, this life of symbiosis with the ocean is all the gypsies know and all they want. Despite the influence of modernization, the gypsies desperately cling to the nostalgia of their ancient traditions.
The Bajau Life: Diving to Eat
Kaba, the cheerful eldest son of my host family, emerges from his hut with hair tied in a bun and his ribs showing. I must pull my share, so we diligently pack the dugout canoe with crude spear guns and nets for our trip to find food. He says, “The sea is our mother, but she not as bountiful as she once was, so we must try harder. Each year we must go farther, dive deeper, stay out longer. Some don’t return”
We set out with Kaba’s cousin toward the family’s secret spot in the middle of the Gulf of Tomini. Here they put my freediving training to the test. With a single breath, we dive eight meters deep for up to five minutes, snaking through coral like a sea otter, foraging for a fish big enough to eat. Kaba takes another single breath at the surface and dives repeatedly. I gasp for air and watch in amazement as several octopi compete to flirt with his bait. After most of the morning, we catch barely enough for lunch and they are ecstatic. My inefficient body cowers with exhaustion and hunger.
The Last Sea Gypsies
Not long ago, Kaba’s family, and the last sea gypsies, were herded into these villages and told to sell luxury sea products (sea cucumbers, sharks fins, etc.) to Chinese exporters for economic sustainability. Their religious leaders now preach for larger families to fill quotas and as a result the gypsy colony is bursting with children. The expanding marine sanctuaries are further confining where they can fish. The reefs have not been able to sustain the concentrated population growth and food is becoming scarce. Now vilified by the aid community as being unsustainable, the gypsies are being told to farm seaweed for sushi restaurants by the same organizations that uprooted them from their seafaring lifestyle.
Unknown to the gypsies, their future – and past – is quickly vanishing by concepts that are alien to them. An uncontrollable tide is pushing them toward a life poverty in the cities, with no use for their diving abilities. I cannot tell my new gypsy friends that their children are doomed to a life in the surface world.
I leave the sea gypsy village later that day, returning to a beach hut, surrounded by tourists. It is my escape from life in the modern world. To this day, I am burdened by the knowledge that the secrets of these superathletes and the world’s greatest divers are being paved over in the name of progress.
— Brad Bernard (@mywanderlist) August 10, 2014
Edited by: Jacqueline R. Helpern
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