Secret of Asia’s ‘Sea Nomad’ Tribe Revealed: Larger Spleen Size Makes These Deep Divers Sustain Longer Underwater
Bajau tribe needs no gear for deep sea diving due to their genetics (Photo credits: YouTube screenshot)

If you have ever gone for a scuba diving or snorkelling adventure, you would want the ability to spend more and more time underwater. But it's not really possible even with the gear that you have on your back. But did you know about the Bajau, sea nomads? The tribal people residing on the oceans in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand can actually spend hours underwater, sans any gear! They dive in deep underwaters, with a spear for some fish hunting and can sustain underneath for hours, the reason being their genetic development. A study published in the scientific journal Cell documents how these certain people have an enlarged spleen helping them with an oxygen boost.

They have had genetic changes over the years, giving them enlarged spleens. A spleen acts a reservoir for red blood cells. These cells give you a boost when you dive in. Because of their larger spleens, the Bajau have larger oxygen capacity which helps them to stay underwater for a much longer time, without using any equipment. It is all in the genes of these tribes. The researchers from the Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of California at Berkeley studied the spleens and spit samples of two communities- the Bajau and non-diving Saluan community in the neigbourhood. On analyzing the genes, they found a 50% larger spleen of the Bajaus!

This, of course, did not happen overnight. The environment underwater is not so pleasant. But it is being said that these sea nomads may have had this ability from centuries ago! “At the moment there isn’t a definitive method for pinpointing the time the process of adaptation began. So we don’t really know,” explained Melissa Ilardo of the University of Copenhagen, the study’s lead author. “We aren’t sure at what point in life the advantage begins to manifest physically. But since there appear to be multiple adaptations, it could be that the onset of each occurs at a different point in maturation and development,” Ilardo continued in one of the reports. The team found 25 gene variants unique to the population of the Bajau. They found that these genes were related to breath-holding and oxygen deprivation.

The sea nomads live on around the islands or houseboats, they spend a lot of their time underwater. They have spectacular diving abilities and even hold records. One of the groups of these people in the Philippines has a record for holding their breath for over 5 minutes while they hunt for shellfish underwater. The new study offers a stunning perspective on the genetic diversity and adaption. The study makes clear the secret of the sea nomads who have been a mystery with their unique abilities.