Dafrin: A True Guardian Of The Reef

Dafrin Abotang was born at sea, he has spent his entire life living in a village built on top of a coral reef in Central Sulawesi Indonesia. He is a priest, fisherman and father who hunts along the ocean floor with a spear gun, and is one of the most renowned natural free divers in his village, Pulu Papan.

The reefs in Sulawesi are depleting each year, with ocean resources heavily impacted by unsustainable fishing practices and ocean acidification, which puts Indonesia’s marine environments under serious threats. With over 95 % of the country’s reefs in danger, images of bleached coral and destroyed ocean habitats flood the media. It therefore seems relevant to focus on the people who are at the heart of these issues. This ecosystem is undeniably part of an immeasurable whole, and it is being damaged, so too, are the lives of the Bajau people that depend on the health of this environment to survive. Daily work finding food is even harder, hunters have to travel further and swim for longer. Damage to this water landscape is also impairing the survival of the communities that live within it.


Free diving is a tradition and vital skill that has been passed down to Dafrin from his nomadic ancestors. Walking along the ocean floor at great depths with nothing but a spear gun, is a way of life that dates back centuries for the Bajau people. The competition from the live fishing trade has altered the way many Bajau fishermen operate in order to survive. “I once tried to catch fish using a bomb, bear in mind I will never use that method again, because I am aware of the affects”.

The lack of conservational education in the Bajau areas is resulting in the destruction of the reefs and ecosystems that sustain them, and every other ocean based community along the pacific.

Our story and film “Guardians of the Ocean” came into play because of a relationship we built with Dafrin, He represents a positive role model, inspiring others to continue the traditional Bajau fishing approach. “When I dive into the water it feels good, it gives me life”. Dafrin emerged in our story as a conservational guardian of Sulawesi. In the film, we follow his journey and intimate struggle to save the reef, whilst confronted with the challenges of destructive fishing methods that threaten him and his people’s survival.

We were drawn to his largely unseen life as un understated fisherman. Documented with a hand held camera we wanted there to be little barrier between us and Dafrin to best capture his life as it was. Dafrin has a rich community of people that surround him and a number of inspiring individuals. Aspen, a member of the village, introduced us to his pet sea horse Echo, whilst a man emerged from the water with a freshly caught squid and donated the ink to our sketchbook. At the same time, Dafrin told us of his ancestry, of the way they used to live; on boats, nomadically, worshipping the gods of the sea. “In the old days, around 100 years ago, Bajau people lived in boats, moving from various places with no certainty, hunting for their catch. When they went out searching, they kept living in the boat. And after the return from their search, they lived in the homes they built, at the ‘Cloating’ island, or along the beach front.. Dafrin said “In the old days they would catch in abundance, and would settle in the area that brought the most Cish. Well when this place loses its catch, they will still go on searching for a different area to settle again”.

This information allowed us to understand the Bajau people’s long standing connection and reliance on the ocean. They have been indigenous to the water as some have been indigenous to the land. Moving around enabled the oceans to recover quickly from overfishing, giving space for ecosystems to replenish with species and life. Government programmes that force the Bajau to move permanently inland has meant that areas become overfished more quickly, causing longterm damage to the reefs and livelihood of ocean communities. Dafrin’s words become very relevant. With the reefs at serious risk, and the Bajau marginalised and outcast with increasingly less rights, we were left wondering: What sort of world will the future people of the Bajau inhabit, and what autonomy will they have over it?