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

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The Bajau may wear Western attire such as skinny jeans, but they still fish as they have for centuries. They travel by boat to the edge of a reef, peer into the water until they spot a fish, then dive in to spear it. For a young Bajau man named Dido, the day’s catch is a young round batfish.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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