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Tribe of 'Sea Nomads' have genetically adapted to diving down to 200 feet below the waves

This Southeast Asian tribe has an almost amphibian-like ability to hold their breath.

Tribe of 'Sea Nomads' have genetically adapted to diving down to 200 feet below the waves
Cover Image Source: Youtube | BBC

Unlike amphibians, humans cannot naturally thrive both on land and underwater. However, the Bajau tribe, spread across Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, have nearly adapted to both these habitats. Known for possessing "the sea nomad gene," members of this tribe can remain underwater for 13 minutes without oxygen, according to National Geographic. They can dive up to 200 feet without any professional diving apparatus. As per the outlet, the people dive into the sea to hunt for food and to get natural elements to make artistic items. As per a study published by The Journal of Cell, the tribe has engaged in breath-hold diving for thousands of years.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Belle Co
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Belle Co

Their enlarged spleens caused by genetic selection have made it possible for them to hold their breaths for longer durations underwater. This results in higher levels of oxygenated blood, allowing them to survive underwater longer. Videos of the tribe members diving and swimming without oxygen support offer a glimpse into what might be the closest real-life equivalent to merpeople.

Researchers studying the tribe ponder whether their remarkable diving abilities are purely genetic. Melissa Ilardo from the Center for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen set out to discover the various factors that give the tribe its deep-diving abilities. She also ended up comparing their spleen size to the spleen size of the nearby Saluan tribe. Ilardo's study revealed that the spleens of the Bajau tribe are about 50 percent larger than those of the land-based Saluan tribe in Indonesia.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Flo Dahm
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Flo Dahm

“I wanted to first meet the community, and not just show up with scientific equipment and leave,” Ilardo expressed. “On the second visit, I brought a portable ultrasound machine and spit collection kits. We went around to different homes and we would take images of their spleens." She also shared her experience with The Atlantic and reminisced about diving with Pai Bayubu, a member of the tribe. “He just dropped down,” Ilardo remembered. “He pointed at it, and then he was there. Underwater, the Bajau are as comfortable as most people are on land. They walk on the seafloor. They have complete control of their breath and body. They spearfish, no problem, first try," she added. As per the outlet, the people live on small houseboats on the water itself. Ima Baineng, a Bajau fisherwoman expressed, "We inherited the sea and art of diving from our ancestors. Here both strong boys and girls dive." The people are known to practice diving regularly, per BBC.


Traditionally the tribes would only come ashore for trade as per the outlet. They survived on food obtained from the sea and dived with wooden goggles and spears they crafted themselves. As per Ilardo, the traits that help the Bajau people survive in water could also help inspire treatments for hypoxia patients on the land. The tribe faces threats from increased commercial fishing and differing citizenship rights compared to land-dwellers. It is no longer possible for the tribe to survive on fish they obtain through diving. In times like these support and access have become increasingly important to protect this unique tribe and their practices.

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