Bajau, the Sea Gypsies of the Togean Islands

  • Bajau, a man of the sea, a man who lives as a lifetime fisherman in Togean Islands
  • A Togian Islands sea gypsy village
  • Waters around the Togian Islands
  • Stephanie Brookes and David Metcalf with one of Bajau people
  • Togean Islands map

Togean Islands map

I met Rohadi, a Bajau Sea Gypsy man at his home in the Togean Islands, Sulawesi, Indonesia last month. I sat and heard tales of his life underwater. His trials and tribulations of being a man of the sea – a Bajau hunter. He has spent more of his life under the water, than above the water, therefore developing a slightly lung capacity, which he inherited via his genealogy. I am a cultural photographer and this has been one of the most interesting projects I have had the privilege of being assigned to. Here is his story:

Armed with just a simple wooden speargun and hand-fashioned wooden goggles, Rohani in his active fishing days, moved from island to island in pursuit of fish. It is said that the Bajau have a genetically larger lung capacity than average, and that some can even spend five minutes underwater on just one breath.

Bajau, a man of the sea, a man who lives as a lifetime fisherman in Togean Islands

Rohani was born 82 years ago on a boat off an island near Makassar, but Kabalutan is now his home. According to Rohani, his life as a sea gypsy has been a good one. As well as being a spear fisherman, he was able to turn his talents to other types of fishing. In his younger days, he even joined a Japanese fishing boat and travelled great distances.

His favourite place to hunt was Pulau Unauna. “It takes 12 hours to sail to Unauna from this village. It is the best reef in the Togeans. I never used an engine. It was not necessary. I just raised my small sail and headed off.”

Now a widower, Rohani explained, “At times I had to be away from my wife and family for long periods, but I always returned and was always able to provide for my family”. He went on, “Now I am too old to hunt. My muscles have weakened, so I just sit here on this porch. I enjoy having more time to spend with my family and people like you, who come to visit me”.

Waters around the Togean Islands

Rohani still has a twinkle in his eye, and when he speaks of the sea, his face lights up. He proudly told me, “I was eight years old when I did my first dive. I could hold my breath the longest. I would have competitions with my friends. No one taught me. I knew from a very young age – you must go down, down, down, very slowly. You must be careful”.

Rohani said that every boy in the village owns a speargun and that girls can spearfish too. “When you get skilled, it usually takes around 5 to 8 minutes to spear a 10kg trevally, from the pursuit to the kill.”

As I sat with Rohani, his family gathered around him on the small wooden porch, and he talked about his involvement in the film Jago – A Life Underwater. Since a film crew came to the Togean Islands three years ago to make this documentary, he explained, visitors have shown lots of interest in his village. Rohani is the star of the film. “Last week we had a group of Koreans here. They all want to come and meet me,” he said, smiling.

A Togean Islands sea gypsy village

The Togeans have diverse ethnic groups living on the 56 islands strung across the Gulf of Tomini. Most Bajau have settled in villages that sit above the sea on stilts. There are more than 37 such villages and smaller settlements in the archipelago. Other major ethnic groups include the Pamona people on the two largest islands, Togean and Batudaka, and the Saluan people.

As you cruise among the islands, you see many clusters of stilted houses, which are all joined by a long footbridge. The Bajau language is widely spoken. The main religion is Islam, which came to this part of Sulawesi in the 17th century from Gorontalo, an area north of the Togeans.

The waters of the Togean Islands are plied by many tiny wooden boats, some supported with spider-like outriggers, many with single triangle sails. The fishermen work in the gulf, but often venture far out into the sea. The Gulf of Tomini is protected from harsh weather conditions. The only thing to disturb the calm are the flying fish, which regularly jump through the air, and dolphins, which can frequently be seen breaking the surface.

Togean Islands from above

There are three types of coral reef in the Togeans: fringing reefs, barrier reefs and atolls. Fringing reefs, which hug the shoreline, can take up to 10,000 years to form. The barrier reefs can take up to 100,000 years to establish, and an atoll can take as long as 30 million years.

Divers and snorkelers encounter perfect conditions year-round and discover an abundance of marine species, including plants, fish and other sea creatures. The Togeans offer some of the brightest, clearest waters in all Indonesia; viewed from above, the colours of the water are extraordinary.

The Togeans are a naturalist’s delight, not just under the sea, but on the land, and in the sky as well. The forest-clad islands are the habitat of the babirusa, tarsier, Togean macaque and hanging parrot. Jungle trekking is popular. In the early morning you can hear the call of the Togean hawk-owl. It is common to see flocks of 20 to 30 knobbed hornbills descending to the mangroves to feed.

Stephanie Brookes and David Metcalf with one of Bajau people

But it was the Bajau people, with their strong culture and peaceful way of life that tugged at my Togean heartstrings. I loved getting to know a little more of their seafaring life, a life which has a place under the sea as much as on top of it. The beauty and purity of this remote location in Sulawesi will no doubt bring me back to this little piece of paradise, time and time again.


Accommodation: 10 of the Togean Islands offer accommodation in mostly 3-star resorts that include three meals a day. If you are a snorkeler, choose a resort, which has a coral house reef at the front. Often places have their own water supply and are run by solar energy. Wi-Fi access does not exist, and phone reception is unreliable. It is best to book one week in advance.


Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.


David Metcalf runs cultural photography tours in Indonesia and beyond. His photo gallery, Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali is a showcase of beautiful photographic work from Indonesia.

He supports education and health programs in Bali and Kalimantan. Read about David HERE !

TAKSU Photo Gallery Centre for creative photography Jl. Wenara Wana (Monkey Forest) Road 11A 80571 Ubud / Bali /

Phone:  +62 811 1331 255 / +62 812 5388 1385 / +62 361 972 500

Share This

About the author

Author and travel writer Stephanie Brookes is an adventurous soul. Her travels have taken her from Montana to Moscow and extensively through Asia. Stephanie lives in Bali and covers stories from Asia’s hotspots, lesser known hidden-hideaways and explores islands of beauty and serenity. Her travels have taken her from Aceh to Nagaland and from Montana to Moscow. A travel writer for over ten years now, Stephanie searches out some of the more remote destinations across the globe. Whether it’s swimming in a hanging lake with jellyfish or hiking to the top of a steaming volcano, nothing stops this travel writer from discovering wild places and writing about them. Published in NowJakarta, Jetstar In-flight magazine, Garuda Colours, KLM Holland Herald, Air Asia 3Sixty,Turkish Airlines Skylife, Silverkris, The JakartaPost,  Indonesia Expat, Forbes Travel Guide Bali, Nine MSN-Channel 9 Australia and several leading travel & lifestyle magazines.

View all articles by Stephanie Brookes