The Bajau People Evolved to Live on the Ocean and Can Stay Underwater for More Than 10 Minutes

Due to more than a 1000 years of freediving and seafaring lifestyle, the Sama-Bajau have developed body capabilities that allow them to stay underwater for a longer period of time.

Image credit: Fabio Achilli & ATI

When we hold our breath and go underwater, our body will react by slowing down the heartbeat and constricting the blood vessels. After a few minutes, most of us would be deprived of oxygen, which can damage organs, particularly the brain. Often enough, it leads to cardio-respiratory arrest and eventually, death.

With a fair amount of freediving training, you can increase the time you spend underwater by a few minutes. However, there’s very little chance of ever catching up with the Sama-Bajau, who can stay underwater with a single breath for up to 13 minutes at a depth of 230 feet (70 meters).

Sama-Bajau is a collective term that refers to several closely related indigenous people who consider themselves a single distinct ethnic group or nation. They live on the waters of Southeast Asia and are known for living off the sea and fishing. The Bajau live on long houseboats known as lepas, or wooden cabins that are built on the sea, close to the shore. They only venture ashore to trade or seek shelter during sea storms. Therefore, the Bajau are often called “Sea Gypsies” or “Sea Nomads”. While other groups living so closely with the sea have existed in history, the Bajau may be the last seafaring people still in existence today.

Due to making their living primarily off of fishing, they are expert free divers. In fact, Bajau divers spend more than 5 hours submerged on a daily basis, and they have the longest daily diving time without breathing among all humans. Bajau children master swimming and diving skills at an early age and begin fishing and hunting when they are only 8 years old. In their free time, they help around the house or play on the beach.

To acquire even more efficient diving capabilities, some Bajau intentionally rupture their own eardrums to better withstand the ocean’s pressure. Therefore, many older divers are hard of hearing.

A Sama-Bajau village in Malaysia. Image credit: Torben Venning – Bajau Laut Pictures

It appears that centuries of persistent freediving and proximity to the water, have made the Sama-Bajau scientifically distinct from other people. According to research published in the scientific journal Cell, their extraordinary properties are due to a genetic mutation. The study explains that the spleens of the Bajau people are one and a half times the size of the average land-dwelling people. This genetic adaptation is likely the result of natural selection, and this is what helps them to carry out their way of life on the sea.

The spleen helps to support the immune system and it regenerates and stores red blood cells. When people go underwater, the spleen contracts and releases oxygenated red blood cells into the bloodstream. Therefore, a larger size of the spleen makes longer breath-holding dives possible, since it can hold a larger reservoir of red blood cells, allowing the body to take in more oxygen. Besides the extraordinary spleens, the Bajau have also developed excellent underwater vision.

A flotilla of typical Sama-Bajau lepas. Image credit: Torben Venning – Bajau Laut Pictures

But the existence of this special group of people is threatened by large-scale fishing, which has made it increasingly difficult for the Bajau to make a living, and rely on fishing alone. They are also looked down upon, and considered inferior by people in the surrounding areas.

As a consequence, more and more people are leaving the seas, and apparently it’s only a matter of time before the Sama-Bajau, and their amazing qualities, disappear.