Sea Bajau Kids of Mabul Island in Sabah


One of the most photographed people at Mabul Island are the Sea Bajau Kids. Located about 30-40 minutes off the east coast town of Semporna in Sabah Malaysia Borneo, Mabul Island is the main gateway to the world renown Sipadan Island. Every year since the last 3-4 years, more and more photographers seem to me coming here to photograph these local sea gypsy kids who regularly visit the many dive lodges on the island.

As I have been here numerous times in the last two years, I have been regularly photographing them to do some personal research. My recent trip in early July, 2013 saw a drastic change in the Sea Bajau children as they now have began asking for money openly and daringly. When turned down, they have resorted to showing a fist if you try to photograph them. Well, not all of them do this but many are learning to do so. 

So, my article here is to educate the photographers who are going there or planning trips there. Please do not entice them with money as this will spoil the society of these sea gypsies or "pelauks" as they are locally known. I repeat, Please DO NOT give them money so you can get your shot. I have been checking with the local people on the island and they have alarmingly informed me that there have been growing cases of tourist giving these children money in order to get them to pose or simply take photos of these children in their carved wooden boats. 

Just this last trip in July, when I took out my camera to photograph some of these children, they asked for one ringgit, and I told them no, and proceeded to shoot, but the boy, barely six or seven years old put up his finger and said 'No..no..no' while quickly paddling away. Another came by later trying his luck, and the child asked for money where I replied the same and took his photo. This one, about eight years old started to scold me and show me his fist. 

Sea Bajau Kids that move around the dive lodges

This simply goes to show that many tourist or photographers have been spoiling these children over the years. Now who is to blame? Well, I would say that the lodge operators should be the first ones informing the guests or photographers about this. Secondly, the tourist and photographers should respect culture and ask around before trying to do things their own way. I guess this article I write is a way of informing those who plan to go there so this is the best I can do from my laptop. 

Some dive operators or lodges have been having good practice in this, one of them is Equator Adventure Tours where the dive guide named Pat Lingham would tell all the guest never to give these kids money. You can however buy snacks or kids junk food and give it to the sea Bajau kids. Then again, seriously, you would like a picture of the kids holding some candy and looking at you?

Another travel company North Borneo Safari that organises photography safaris here has some excellent practice as the owner Cede Prudente leads the photographers and informs them about buying sweets and snacks for the kids. He however has a certain strategy for the professional photographers in order for them to get the desired photographs of these people and kids. 

I end this with a small plea to all those heading to Mabul to photograph the Sea Bajau kids, please do not give them cash money when you want to photograph them or even when they keep coming and asking for money as in the short run, this will affect the social life of the Sea Bajau Kids of Mabul Island in Sabah.

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