The Bajau people are nomadic fishermen living an entirely seaborne existence, and appear to swim better than they walk.
“With virtually no body fat, the Bajau can reach the bottom of the ocean with nothing more than a few kicks,” explains presenter Will Millard on his new BBC show Hunters of the South Seas. Extraordinary footage (see below) shows how the local men free dive to hunt for dinner.
Many of the Bajau community have not stepped onto land in years, and Millard gets a rare glimpse into how they’ve managed as he lives in a Bajau floating hut.
Hailing from Norfolk, the presenter first travelled to the region when he was 18. “I went to Bali on a typical gap year route,” he explains. “When I left university I was just desperate to go back out there. Indonesia really captured my imagination with all of its different islands, different cultures and different languages.”
While teaching English in West Papua he learned to speak the language and went on to guide Royal Geographical Society expeditions in the area.
“The Coral Triangle is the most marine biodiverse region in the world, there’s more species of fish in a single reef on the Coral Triangle than in the whole Caribbean put together,” says Millard. “It’s an extraordinarily rich place. And as a result you’ve got communities living out there in this traditional way that have managed to survive for hundreds of years because the area is just so rich… the view of the Bajau was that the sea will always provide.” The same view is held by other remote communities in the area.
“We wanted to explore how, in a world which is changing so fast, even the most remote communities are still managing to stand the test of time, and explore how they’ve been affected by these changes in things like climate change, overfishing, and what they can tell us about ourselves.”
In the series Millard also visits a controversial community named Lamalera – famous for whale hunting with hand-made harpoons. “The whale is an iconic, charismatic marine mammal that we put on a pedestal in the West,” he explains. “Being part of a whale hunt was firstly the single most terrifying experience of my life and secondly it was really, really sad, it was a sad thing to see.”
Yet after spending a month with the Lamalera people, Millard realises that whale hunting is the only way this community can survive. “They live on an infertile piece of volcanic rock,” he explains, “if they don’t catch the whale, they don’t have their protein source… but seeing the death of an intelligent animal is undoubtedly a really hard thing to watch.”
In a strange sort of way, these communities are actually following really good sustainable practices, explains Millard, “They’re only catching what they need.”
Even human waste is put to good use: “What that toilet system [a hole in the floor, which drops into the ocean] has done for San Pella can’t be underestimated,” he says. “They’ve created a captive fish environment directly under their houses that feeds on what comes out of their toilets… they can rely on that captive fish population during rough seas, it helps the 1,500 people village of San Pella to survive. That’s a really wonderful idea.”
The West can learn a lot in terms of sustainability from the way these these rural communities live maintains Millard. “We don’t need to be catching fish in the numbers that we do in the West,” he says. “We don’t need to be exploiting our oceans in the ways we do.”
It’s time to expand our horizons and travel to lesser-known places in the world and learn from other ways of life, urges Millard. “Indonesia is a country that is wider than the United States of America has more languages and dialects than pretty much anywhere else on earth,” he says. “I would encourage anybody that’s looking to break away from the South East Asia staple scene to go to Indonesia. It’s an absolutely fascinating country and it is more of a challenge to travel, you do need the time, but my goodness me is it worth it.”
Watch Hunters of the South Seas airs Sunday 19 April at 9pm on BBC2