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X-Men of the Sea

It sounds like something straight out of X-Men; a group of people who are able to stay underwater for up to 13 minutes at a time at depths of up to 60 meters (that’s about 200 feet for the Americans in the room). If you're like us and you fear drowning when washing your face in the morning, this topic probably seems so other worldly - we had to dive deeper (pun very much intended).


The Bajau are a nomadic people who live in the waters around the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Their lives revolve around the sea, where they free-dive for food and search for natural elements, which are used to make crafts. Sometimes referred to as Sea Nomads or Sea Gypsies, the Bajau are marine hunter-gatherers, who spend up to 60% of their lives underwater. The 35,000-strong community does not effectively belong to a country. Ocean conservation is of vital concern for the Bajau. They endeavor to pass on their seafaring ways to the younger generation as they are increasingly exposed to outside influences. How do they do it? One study suggests that a genetic adaptation resulted in larger spleens in the Bajau people. The spleen supports our immune system and also works to recycle red blood cells. When humans are submerged in water, the Diving Response (or Reflex) is triggered; our heart rate slows, blood vessels constrict, and our spleen contracts - all allowing us to save energy as our oxygen depletes. A larger spleen would act as an oxygen reservoir in this context, allowing the Bajau to stay underwater for longer periods of time when practicing breath-hold or free diving. 


Further Reading

'Sea Nomads' Are First Known Humans Genetically Adapted to Diving

Physiological and Genetic Adaptations to Diving in Sea Nomads

Image by Bencha Ouss

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