The Bajau people, often referred to as “Sea Nomads” or “Sea Gypsies,” are a tribe native to the region of Tawi-Tawi in the Philippines. They have a remarkable ability to hold their breath underwater for up to 13 minutes, an adaptation that has evolved over generations due to their deep connection with the ocean.
The Bajau’s way of life is intrinsically linked with the sea. Their homes are usually floating structures, or boats organized into flotillas, where they spend most of their lives, meandering around the waters of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They survive through subsistence hunting, spearing fish when the need arises, and it is not uncommon for a Bajau individual to spend up to five hours underwater daily.
The long-standing and unique relationship the Bajau people have with the sea has resulted in physical adaptations that enable them to dive to extreme depths. One adaptation is the increased size of their spleens, a characteristic that has been linked to the body’s response to diving underwater. A larger spleen can store more oxygen-rich blood, which can be released during prolonged periods of oxygen deprivation, such as when diving. This physiological adaptation is shared by seals, marine mammals that also spend a significant amount of their life underwater.
Moreover, to deal with the intense pressure underwater, some Bajau individuals deliberately puncture their eardrums. While this procedure is quite painful and results in dizziness and bleeding, it eventually enables them to dive without experiencing discomfort from the changes in pressure.
The Bajau people, primarily known as Sama-Bajau, consist of several Austronesian ethnic groups of Maritime Southeast Asia. They are found in other islands of the Sulu Archipelago, coastal areas of Mindanao, as well as in regions of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Their relationship with the sea is such that even their cultural rituals reflect it. For instance, as a part of a childbirth ritual, a newly born infant is thrown into the sea, and clan members dive to save the newborn.
The Bajau people of Tawi-Tawi in the Philippines demonstrate a fascinating example of human adaptation to specific environmental conditions. Their unique ability to hold their breath for extended periods underwater and dive to significant depths is a testament to the remarkable capacity of the human body to evolve and adapt over generations.