Palawan is the Philippines’ largest and westernmost province, stretching from Borneo in the southwest to Mindoro in the northeast. Flanked by the Sulu and the South China Seas and surrounded by approximately 1,780 smaller islands and islets, the long, thin mainland is divided lengthways by a largely uninhabited mountain range clad with dense, leafy jungle.
The Philippines are a traditional source of natural pearls and shells with most pearl farming activity located on the island of Palawan. The Samal-Badjao people are well known for their diving skills and the search for rare natural pearls. This skill was developed in their pursuit of trade, particularly a sea cucumber species called the trepang; considered a delicacy it is used in soups made as far away as China, where it is also used medicinally. Bajau divers can descend as deep as 30 meters (100 feet) in search of it but also use their skills in search of pearls.
Traditionally the Badjao were a nomadic seafaring people, originating from the Samal Tribe, on the island of Mindenao. The Bajau have been a nomadic, seafaring people for most of their history. And many Bajau still practice that same lifestyle to this day, and colloquially referred to as “sea gypsies.” or “sea-nomads.” They chart particularly the waters off the Sulu Sea, off the southwestern coast of the Philippines, and the various seas that surround the Indonesian island of Sulawesi living in stilt huts or boat houses on shallow waters. They make their living from traditional free-diving for fish and pearls.
These waters off the Sulu Sea are among the most dangerous waters in the world with sporadic policing at best and a very high incidence of open piracy. Yet these Bajau claim never to have wielded weapons — preferring to simply flee from potential attack. They come ashore only to bury the deceased and to live temporarily while making new boats.
Over the years, more and more Badjao people have been lured away from the ocean, migrating to a life on land. Belonging to no official state and possessing no official nationality, the move from sea to land is a challenge. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, the Badjao are at a disadvantage with no schooling, healthcare or access to government-provided social services.
In the process of adapting to a land-based life, their unique skills in free-diving, along with their in-depth knowledge and understanding of the ocean, becomes much less relevant. The younger generations have forgotten their ability to dive to the bottom of the reef and walk on the bottom of the ocean.
Some Badjao, however, have managed to maintain a sea-faring life and preserve their traditions in the solitude and liberty of living freely and independently on the sea, away from the rules and restrictions that bind those who live on land.
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