Sea Nomads
© Johnjo Deery

Superhuman divers forced to abandon their aquatic lifestyle

Jack O'Donovan By: Jack O'Donovan
Date posted: 27 April 2018

New research surprised the scientific community last week as the Bajau people of South-East Asia became the first known humans genetically adapted to diving. But who are the Bajau and why should we worry about their livelihoods?

Sea Nomad diver
© James Morgan
© Hazize San

“Sea Nomads” (the name given to the freediving Bajau people of South-East Asia and the Coral Triangle) have evolved larger spleens allowing them to dive to depths of over 70m on a single breath while hunting on the seafloor. Larger spleens have allowed them to store higher levels of oxygenated red blood cells which enable them to dive without the risk of hypoxia - a lack of oxygen in the body.

The Bajau have thrived alongside the biodiversity of coral ecosystems; it is where they hunt and where they live in houseboats, or on small houses built on stilts in the shallow tropical waters. Many Bajau spend most of their day in the water freediving for clams and sea cucumbers, and with handmade spears hunting along the seafloor for fish and octopus.

The Coral Triangle gets its name from its vast covering of coral reefs. It contains over 600 species of reef building corals alone and harbours an astonishing 76% of the world’s coral species. These plentiful coral ecosystems support fish communities which have sustained the Bajau for centuries.

Today however all but a few traditional settlements still practise a subsistence fishing lifestyle. Homemade fertiliser bombs, electro fishing, dynamite and cyanide fishing have all been introduced to meet the demand for live fish trade to restaurants. Many coral bleaching events have been documented due to rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification. These events have lead many Bajau people to now reside fully on land, though many still call the sea their home.

The aquatic lifestyle and genetic adaptation of the Bajau people is at risk as their reef ecosystems continue to decline. Coastal ecosystems and communities are a fragile and vital link between land and sea. Without measures of protection and management these vibrant ecosystems can be easily exploited and may rapidly decline. MCS continues to support the creation of more marine protected areas and is contributing to the global MPA network with our work overseas. With a global increase in MPAs we will see the conservation of unique and vulnerable species and ecosystems, while simultaneously creating community resilience and delivering what people need and deserve from healthy seas.

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Did you know?…

70% of the oxygen in the air we breathe comes from the ocean

Healthy seas lock in carbon and help protect the planet from the devastating effects of climate change