Sea Gypsies Jody MacDonald

Ancient Adventurers: Who are the Sea Gypsies?

Words: Josh Rakic
Photography: Jody MacDonald

Canadian explorer Jody MacDonald takes you inside the lives of the ancient sea gypsies.

Kevin Costner’s Waterworld may well be relegated to the archives of 1990s high concept nostalgia, but water people do indeed exist - in the form of the ancient sea gypsy tribes of Borneo and surrounds. And Canadian explorer, adventurer and photographer Jody MacDonald has the proof, having recently spent a month living amongst the remaining tribes that live on and from the ocean. Modern luxuries don’t exist. Hell, ancient luxuries aren’t even figments of their imaginations. And as MacDonald discovered, they’re none the worse off as a result. In fact, they’re happier not knowing the shackles of modern society, debt and materialism.

A National Geographic photographer at large, MacDonald’s no stranger to adventure and exploration of the last untamed corners of the planet having spent her formative years in Saudi Arabia before sailing the world twice over in the span of a decade providing year-round kite surfing expeditions for professionals and adventure-seekers alike.

She paraglides, surfs, mountain bikes and snowboards, but above all wanders in fearless search of endangered cultures that have all but ignored evolution, to capture them through her lens before they disappear forever. And her recent trip to the Sulu Archipelago region is a fine example of just that…

THE RED BULLETIN: What first inspired you to seek out the sea gypsies?

JODY MACDONALD: I’m interested in cultures that have unique ways of living and have traditionally lived certain ways for hundreds and hundreds of years. There are fewer of them now because of cultural assimilation, modernization, and diminishing resources. So many places and cultures are diminishing at such a rapid rate that I feel an urgency to experience and document them before they are lost.

You spent a month living the life of a sea gypsy. Who are they and how do they live exactly?

The Bajau Laut are some of the last remaining sea nomads who have lived at sea for centuries navigating the expanse of ocean between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. They’re born at sea and live at sea. They are a stateless, nomadic people who live at sea on boats or in stilted homes above the water. They move around based on food and resources. It really reminded me of Waterworld the movie. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. You’re so immersed in an alien environment. It was only missing Kevin Costner on a jetski.

And you shared a single room shack on stilts above the water with 12 locals?

Yes. In literally a 20 feet by 10 makeshift stilt home. It felt like it could collapse at any time. Everything happens within that square box - cooking in one corner, sleeping in another, the other is for going to the bathroom. The boards on the floor of the stilt homes are basically planks that they’ve thrown on there. So they have big gaps in between them and you’re going to the bathroom in front of everybody between the gaps of the floor boards. So that’s humbling.

What’s the day in the life of a sea gypsy look like?

It’s really simple living. Daily life includes fishing and spearfishing, cooking, and resting. Often in the middle of the day when it’s quite hot, the kids are playing in the water or many people are taking a siesta. Often times we’d go out spear fishing and be out there 5-6 hours straight swimming the whole time. The gear is all handmade, even the goggles and swim fins and they can hold their breath free-driving for up to five minutes at a time.

Sounds like you’ve gone back in a time machine…

That’s a really good analogy. That’s what it feels like. You get into the motions of it quite easily. It doesn’t take that long to adapt to the lifestyle. I remember thinking “ who needs money and things? This way of life is completely sustainable.” It’s incredibly liberating to live so simply off the resources that surround you.

“Luckily the only pirates we encountered just wanted alcohol and cigarettes.”
Sea Gypsies Jody MacDonald

Who’s happier, the ancient sea gypsies or modern America?

My answer would definitely be them. They seem very content. When I come back to America the mentality is that there is never enough. Whether it’s money, clothes, houses or cars. Whatever it is, not many people seem content. That worry is not there. They very much live in the present. They have very little material things and we found ourselves laughing and helping one another as much as possible.  There’s no stress or concern other than what we are going to eat. It’s as simple as that. There seems to be a lot of happiness and little stress. It really teaches you that you don’t need much for survival or happiness. It strips away material items completely. It’s very humbling.

You’ve also spent time train-hopping in the Sahara and off the coast of Mauritania with the Imragruen fishermen - also sea people. They’re extremely superstitious…

Off the coast of Africa they sail these old traditional ships around and have maintained age old lifestyles, based mostly almost exclusively on harvesting migratory fish populations. The techniques they use have been unchanged since first recorded by 15th century Portuguese explorers. The night I arrived there, one of the fisherman had fallen off the boat and drowned. We were looking for his body in the ocean. I found out then that none of them knew how to swim! It’s incredible to me that these people live their whole lives by the sea and spend every day fishing, yet still don’t know how to swim. I ended up finding out that cultural superstitions of the ocean [what lies beneath] and fear prevent them from wanting to learn.

Did you swim in front of them?

I do try to be very respectful of the people, cultures and traditions that I am around. I will swim to take photographs, but I won’t swim more than I needed to. They did warn me every time I went in the water though - “Don’t go in the water!” And you have to be careful about that, too, because sometime they’re telling you for a good reason - sharks, bad currents, etc. Again, it’s using your skill set that you learn from experience to access the situation and make a judgment call on it.

No near-death experiences?

I’ve never feared for my life other than a couple of really bad storms. I’ve been traveling so long you learn to trust your instincts and know when to pull out of any bad situations. Luckily the only pirates we encountered just wanted alcohol and cigarettes.

What is it that draws you to the isolated and ancient regions?

I really like the isolation because there’s nothing quite like going to places very few people have been to or seen. It’s the very essence of exploration and I think it’s part of our DNA. Sailing is a great vehicle for that because you’re going to places people aren’t capable of getting to unless they have a boat. They haven’t been affected by tourism, which changes everything. When you’re exploring areas few people have been, you’re seeing the authenticity of the world. There’s a romance and beauty to that and it’s incredibly special. It’s also much harder to do. It takes more effort. Anything that’s harder is much more enjoyable and has much more reward. I learn more about myself as a person, what I’m capable of and it helps me figure out what’s really important in my life. The most valuable lessons are learned in those hard situations and the lessons I learn help me navigate through the world in a more fulfilling way.

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08 2016 the red bulletin

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