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Between Land and Water

By the time Dafrin Ambotang was four years old, he could already hold his breath and dive down to the coral-strewn sea bed of the lagoon in front of his house. By the age of six, he had speared his first fish. Ambotang belongs to the Bajau people, a semi-nomadic group who, for hundreds of years, lived aboard their boats, roaming the waters of the coral triangle between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, rarely setting foot on land. Their lifestyle earned them the moniker 'sea-gypsies'. The Bajau's knowledge of the ocean is unique, and their prowess as divers and marine hunters is unparalleled. Such is their affinity for the aquatic life, that some Bajau become 'land-sick' when they step ashore. Traditionally, young children would purposefully rupture their eardrums at an early age to facilitate diving, whilst a few Bajau even developed physical adaptations, such as eyes designed to focus better underwater. But over the last few decades, faced with dwindling fish populations, government pressure to settle and increasing awareness of the possibilities offered by the connected world of the 21st century, this nomadic lifestyle has all but disappeared.

Access to cheap (and often destructive) fishing equipment, including gill-nets, cyanide, dynamite and diesel engines have given the Bajau a better standard of living than they have ever enjoyed in the past. Yet ironically, by embracing these modern techniques the Bajau have contributed to the destruction of the very waters they rely on.

Now 35, Ambotang is an adept free-diver, able to hunt fish at a depth of almost 30 metres for as long as 4 minutes on a single breath. But he is one of only a handful of people in the Indonesian stilt village of Pulo Papan who still possess the ability.

The Bajau are at a cross-roads, as they work to reconfigure their relationship with the ocean in this period of transition. By embracing the comforts and technology of a connected, land-based life, and the economic rewards it offers, they are in danger of smashing the delicate balance that sustained their sea-faring ways for generations.

This is a story about a conflicted people, tentatively exploring a brave new world that will inevitably change them forever.
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