Gypsies of the Sea
No one understands the ancient nature of pearls quite like the Badjao, the sea gypsies who sail the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas across three nations and make their living from its bounty.
The origins of the indigenous tribe of Badjaos are uncertain. According to legend, they came from the shores of Johore, Malaysia, where they had already been living in clusters of houseboats. Perhaps this is why the name "Badjao" is a Malay-Bornean word meaning "Man of the Seas".
For centuries, they have been known as a nomadic tribe who live in their boats, fearlessly navigating the Malacca region to offer precious pearls for trading. As sea-dwellers, thissmall ethnic group Badjaos have made their home in the waters of the Sulu archipelago, in the southern coasts of the Philppines: along Jolo, Siasi and Tabul Islands, and further south in Sitangkai, Subutu and the Tawi-tawi Islands.
A lifestyle committed to the sea
Calm and gentle, the Badjaos are a peace-loving tribe who avoid conflict and violence. The only form of violence that is acceptable to them is the wrath of the sea, sharks, and the sharp pain of a throbbing ear caused by diving to near-impossible depths. They are a timid people who, when offended, simply move to another place.
They resist change and enjoy a peaceful and simple way of life very similar to their ancestors. Their heritage is a special skill in free diving that has enabled them to live their life at sea as pearl divers who fearlessly probe the seabed to find oysters and Mother of Pearl.
Diving for Pearl
Each morning before they dive, the Badjaos give offerings to the sea spirits from their boat. They gather a small bowl of rice, inexpensive scents and cigarettes in a piece of white cloth and recite a short prayer is recitedas they throw the bundle into the sea:
"This is for you. Do not give us bad result. Please give us power to gather something".
While the water envelopes the offering, the Badjao diver prepares to descend by breathing rapidly, as though hyperventilating, as he sits cross-legged on his boat. He quickly dons a pair of wooden goggles and securely fastens a rope about his waist that would tether him to the boat. Preparations complete, he makes his descent right at the wake of his humble offering to the sea spirits.
With the aid of a stone ballast, he shoots through the water and fearlessly descends up to 80 meters from the surface to reach the oyster bed. He keeps a sharp eye out to detect a pearl oyster, which is usually half-buried or camouflaged by the sand.
While diving, the Badjao remains alert for any dangers he might face. Traversing deep waters sometimes bring hostile encounters from other sea creatures yet sometimes, he is rewarded with a friendly one. Most of the time, as sea-dwellers themselves, the Badjao manages to move harmoniously with other life forms at sea. Two or three minutes later, he breaks the surface with an oyster in his hand.
In the old days, the Badjao was forced to gather as many oysters as he could to find to find a pearl. Unfortunately, he is seldom rewarded with only three out of a thousand oysters containing a pearl.
Today, finding a pearl oyster is a reward in itself since the pearl farm pays handsomely for the oyster to be used as parent stock for cultivation.
After three to five dives, a Badjao can gather as much as 10 pearl oysters in a day. He keeps the oysters submerged in water beneath his stilt house to be sold to the pearl farms.
Today, Jewelmer still employs the Badjao's skill in getting wild oysters from the deep, albeit not as in large quantities as before. The wild oysters are specifically used for inter-breeding with hatchery-bred oysters to continue improving the genetic make-up of the parent stock.