The Incredible Diving Adaptation of the Bajau Sea Nomads

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to survive underwater without oxygen for more than a few minutes? Well, let me introduce you to the Bajau Laut people of Southeast Asia, also known as the Bajau Sea Nomads. These incredible individuals have evolved genetically and physiologically to become the first known humans with a genetic adaptation to diving.

The Bajau people are seafaring, nomadic, fishing clans who spend a significant portion of their lives underwater. They have a unique ability to hold their breath for at least thirteen minutes on average, without any special training in static apnea. It’s like they have turned into human seals!

A recent study published in the Journal Cell found that the Bajau have larger spleens, estimated to be about 50 percent bigger than those of the average person. This enlarged spleen enables them to maintain the diving reflex for longer periods while underwater. The diving reflex is a set of automatic responses that occur when an air-breathing mammal’s face is submerged in water. In response to low oxygen, the blood vessels constrict, the spleen contracts, and the heart rate slows down. These adaptations help maximize oxygen reserves and increase the blood’s oxygen capacity.

The Bajau people live in long houseboats known as lepas and can be found in the waters off Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. They have been living on the sea for centuries and have developed unique fishing techniques, with diving being the most common. Using wooden goggles and hand weights, they dive as deep as 30 meters (100 feet) to catch fish for survival. They also have a particular love for diving for sea cucumbers, which they use to create local delicacies and soups.

Researchers have discovered that even Bajau members who don’t dive possess the genetic mutation for an enlarged spleen. They suspect that a specific gene called PDE10A is responsible for this mutation. PDE10A controls a thyroid hormone known as T4, which increases metabolic rates and combats low oxygen levels. This hormone has been found to be linked to larger spleens in mice. Additionally, the Bajau have other genes specialized for diving, performing functions not found in people of other ethnicities.

Another adaptation observed in the Bajau people is stronger lung walls, similar to those found in Tibetans. Deep diving can cause vessels in the lungs to rupture, leading to potentially fatal consequences. However, through regular training and constant diving, the Bajau’s lungs have become stronger and more adapted to withstand high volumes of blood.

So, what can we learn from the Bajau and its amazing adaptations? Well, their genetic mutations provide insight into how humans can better cope with oxygen deficiency and hypoxia. Hypoxia is a condition where there is a deficiency of oxygen in the body’s tissues. By studying the Bajau and their ability to thrive in low-oxygen environments, scientists hope to gain valuable knowledge about managing hypoxia in medical treatments.

Unfortunately, the Bajau people face marginalization and segregation in their native dwellings. They are not treated as equals by the citizens of the countries where they live on seas and shores. Due to increased industrial fishing by their host countries, many Bajau have been forced to migrate from the seas. Scientists fear that by the time they are ready to delve deeper into researching the Bajau’s adaptations, these incredible sea nomads may be fully dispersed.

In conclusion, the Bajau Sea Nomads represents an extraordinary example of human genetic adaptation to diving. Their enlarged spleens, specialized genes, and strengthened lungs allow them to survive underwater for astonishing amounts of time. By studying the Bajau, researchers hope to unlock the secrets of hypoxia management and improve our understanding of the human body’s ability to adapt to extreme environments.


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