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  • Writer's pictureArivin Tiran

The Bajaus - The real Aquam(e)n

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

'Sea Nomads' of the Far East

The Bajau people live across the southern Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and, according to BBC’s rough estimates, number about one million people.

Few communities around the world can boast a deeper connection to the ocean than the legendary Bajau Laut, who follow a nomadic, seafaring way of life.

A 2010 study sanctioned by University Malaya Sabah found that the sea gipsies rarely, if ever, set foot on land. When they do spend the occasional night or two on solid ground, they often report feeling ‘land sick’.

In recent times, a breakthrough study has revealed that the Bajau people of South-East Asia have developed bigger spleens for diving which provides a greater oxygen boost for a longer duration of diving

Bamboo stilt houses sit off Bodgaya Island - MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Speaking to BBC’s Inside Science Programme, First author Melissa Ilardo, from the University of Copenhagen said "For possibly thousands of years, [they] have been living on houseboats, travelling from place to place in the waters of South-East Asia and visiting land only occasionally. So everything they need, they get from the sea”.

"When they're diving traditionally, they dive repeatedly for about eight hours a day, spending about 60% of their time underwater. So this could be anything from 30 seconds to several minutes, but they're diving to depths of over 70m," said Dr Ilardo.

On the hunt -Franck Seguin

Amazingly, these deep dives are performed only with a wooden mask or goggles and a weight belt.

Dr Ilardo explained that the spleen was an obvious candidate for studying potential adaptations to aquatic lifestyle as it acts as a reservoir for oxygenated red blood cells, providing an oxygen boost just as a biological scuba tank.

Co-author Prof Rasmus Nielsen, from the University of California, Berkeley added that the Bajaus are a wonderful example of how humans can adapt to their local environments.

He also highlighted that the findings can potentially have medical implications for conditions such as trauma as traumatic disorders are often related to low oxygen levels.

Judging from this, the Bajau community looks the closest to the fictional superhero, Aquaman. Maybe next time scientist can explore whether they can talk to fishes!

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