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The Coral Triangle: Amazon of the Oceans

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow James Morgan.

The Bajau are adept free divers, descending to improbable depths in search of food and other creatures for trade. Togian Islands, Indonesia.
The Bajau are adept free divers, descending to improbable depths in search of food and other creatures for trade. Togian Islands, Indonesia.

I’ve been fortunate to see most of the world’s oceans the past couple of years. I’ve worked with coastal communities in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America, in the Arctic and recently on the Great Barrier Reef. But one place I keep coming back to is the Coral Triangle. Home to over three quarters of the world’s coral species, The Coral Triangle is the underwater equivalent of the Amazon. It encompasses an area half the size of the United States and harbours more marine species than anywhere else on the planet.

For the children that are born in Torosiaje, it may be several years before they set foot on dry land. The stilt village has a junior school but older children commute to the mainland. Sulawesi, Indonesia.
For the children that are born in Torosiaje, it may be several years before they set foot on dry land. The stilt village has a junior school but older children commute to the mainland. Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Despite the majority of Bajau now living in stilt communities and adopting cosmologies more in line with land-based communities, they still build their mosques over the ocean and practice a syncretic belief system that allows for a deep reverence for the ocean and the spirits that are said to inhabit it. Torosiaje, Indonesia.
Despite the majority of Bajau now living in stilt communities and adopting cosmologies more in line with land-based communities, they still build their mosques over the ocean and practice a syncretic belief system that allows for a deep reverence for the ocean and the spirits that are said to inhabit it. Torosiaje, Indonesia.

My first introduction to the Coral Triangle was through the eyes of a group of Bajau sea nomads. In the last few decades, many Bajau have been forced to settle on land, but a dwindling number still call the ocean home, plying their ancestral routes between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The individuals in these images were the first people I met who had spent more time at sea than on land, and something in that resonated with me, so I ended up staying.

Many elder Bajau now live in such communities, their childhoods living nomadically on the ocean now distant memories.
Many elder Bajau now live in such communities, their childhoods living nomadically on the ocean now distant memories.
Amja Kasim Derise cooking dinner at home on his traditional lepa lepa boat. The back of the boat is used for cooking, the middle for sleeping and the front for fishing. Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Amja Kasim Derise cooking dinner at home on his traditional lepa lepa boat. The back of the boat is used for cooking, the middle for sleeping and the front for fishing. Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Traditionally, the Bajau fish with nets and lines and are expert free divers, going to improbable depths in search of pearls and sea cucumbers or to hunt with handmade spear guns. But over the years these traditional techniques have slowly given way to dynamite and cyanide fishing; practices driven predominantly by an insatiable demand for live reef fish from Hong Kong and mainland China. In order to catch sufficient quantities of the target species, Bajau are using compressors to dive ever deeper and paralyse fish using a toxic mix of potassium cyanide. The consequences for both humans and nature throughout the Coral Triangle have been catastrophic with fish stocks radically depleted, entire reefs decimated and compressor diving becoming the single biggest cause of death amongst Bajau communities.

From Borneo down to the edge of the South Pacific, the Coral Triangle has some of the most breathtaking underwater landscapes I’ve seen, but the majority are buckling under the pressures of overfishing, resource extraction and climate change. The effect this is having on the 140 million people who rely directly on the ocean’s abundance is incalculable.

Compressor diving, often in conjunction with cyanide fishing, remains a common practice amongst the Bajau Laut despite being unsustainable, illegal and highly dangerous. Young Bajau men, and often children, will routinely dive to depths of sixty metres with air pumped down to them through a hose pipe and a regulator - with no knowledge of the dangers inherent in diving to such depths they often ascend far to quickly resulting in nitrogen build up and the bends. Compressor diving is one of the main causes of unnatural death amongst the Bajau communities I have visited.
Compressor diving, often in conjunction with cyanide fishing, remains a common practice amongst the Bajau Laut despite being unsustainable, illegal and highly dangerous. Young Bajau men, and often children, will routinely dive to depths of sixty metres with air pumped down to them through a hose pipe and a regulator – with no knowledge of the dangers inherent in diving to such depths they often ascend far to quickly resulting in nitrogen build up and the bends. Compressor diving is one of the main causes of unnatural death amongst the Bajau communities I have visited.
Moen Lanke wrenching clams from the reef with a tyre iron. He holds his breath for long minutes underwater while the work is done. Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Moen Lanke wrenching clams from the reef with a tyre iron. He holds his breath for long minutes underwater while the work is done. Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Ibu Hanisa lost her hands and the sight in one eye when a homemade fertiliser bomb went off in her house. There are human, as well as environmental, costs to destructive fishing practices.
Ibu Hanisa lost her hands and the sight in one eye when a homemade fertiliser bomb went off in her house. There are human, as well as environmental, costs to destructive fishing practices.
Jatmin, an octopus specialist, carries his freshly speared catch back to his boat in the shallow waters off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Jatmin, an octopus specialist, carries his freshly speared catch back to his boat in the shallow waters off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia.
The grouper are transported to a holding facility in Bali, where they are kept in live fish tanks and wait to be flown to Hong Kong and mainland China.
The fish captured by the Bajau fishermen are transported to a holding facility in Bali, where they are kept in live fish tanks and wait to be flown to Hong Kong and mainland China.
After travelling thousands of miles, the red spotted grouper eventually ends up on a plate in Hong Kong's renowned Jumbo restaurant where at just under a pound it sells for 1000 HK dollars (130 USD). It may well have been caught using destructive and dangerous fishing practices, at the moment there is no way for restaurateurs or consumers to really know where the fish is coming from and, more importantly, how it's been caught. Hong Kong.
After travelling thousands of miles, the red spotted grouper eventually ends up on a plate in Hong Kong’s renowned Jumbo restaurant where at just under a pound it sells for 1000 HK dollars (130 USD). It may well have been caught using destructive and dangerous fishing practices, at the moment there is no way for restaurateurs or consumers to really know where the fish is coming from and, more importantly, how it’s been caught. Hong Kong.

Despite this, conservation has never felt like the real focus of my work. Scientists and anthropologists paint a bleak picture of the Coral Triangle’s trajectory, but Bajau cosmology – a syncretism of animism and islam – continues to reveal a complex understanding of the ocean which remains both multifarious and unifying. And as one of the planet’s most biologically significant and culturally diverse ecosystems is gradually diminished, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m seeing another form of loss. Something I can’t quite photograph or shoehorn into a statistic, something we probably won’t fully understand until its gone, and which draws me back to the region over and over.

To find out more about The Coral Triangle visit: www.thecoraltriangle.com

Click here to see a video of James Morgan’s work in the The Coral Triangle.

For more of James’ work in the region and on sea nomadism visit: www.jamesmorgan.co.uk

Whilst few young Bajau are now born on boats, the ocean is still very much their playground. And whilst they are getting conflicted messages from their communities, who simultaneously refrain from spitting in the ocean and continue to dynamite its reefs, I still believe they could play a crucial role in the development of western marine conservation practices. Here Enal plays with his pet shark. Wangi Wangi, Indonesia.
Whilst few young Bajau are now born on boats, the ocean is still very much their playground. And whilst they are getting conflicted messages from their communities, who simultaneously refrain from spitting in the ocean and continue to dynamite its reefs, I still believe they could play a crucial role in the development of western marine conservation practices. Here Enal plays with his pet shark. Wangi Wangi, Indonesia.

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