The Remarkable Story of the Bajau Sea Nomads

Life’s a beach, unless you are part of a nomadic people whose existence revolves around the ever-shrinking spoils of coastal waters.

Who Are the Bajau?

Image: Claudio Sieber / Caters News

The Bajau people of Southeast Asia, commonly known as “sea gypsies” or “sea nomads,” are not just a unique cultural community who have lived offshore for at least a thousand years, but a kind of “medical phenomenon” too.

Their particular lifestyle, which has remained unchanged for centuries, has apparently triggered a natural selection process that has made them the best freedivers in the world. The Bajau’s bodies are literally genetically adapted to life on — and in — the sea.

Source: ‘Sea Nomads’ Are First Known Humans Genetically Adapted to Diving

What Can They Do That’s so Impressive?

Image: Claudio Sieber / Caters News

While the average person can hold their breath underwater for seconds, the Bajau can do the same for much longer — up to 13 minutes in a single dive. At the same time, the depths to which they dive are quite remarkable and can reach depths of 60 meters (200 feet).

What makes these people so unique? In a search for an answer, scientist Melissa Llardo from the Center for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen traveled to Southeast Asia to meet the Bajau nomads.

Putting the Pieces of the Puzzle Together

Image: Torben Venning

Inspired by studies done on seals and other marine mammals who spend most of their lives in deeper waters that showed all of these creatures have disproportionately large spleens, Llardo wondered if similar manifestations could be found in humans whose lives have been closely attached to the sea for a very, very long time.

The remarkable results of her study were published in the journal Cell, and the story behind them it is incredible.

Source: Physiological and Genetic Adaptations to Diving in Sea Nomads