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Real Life Mermaids?

By Amrita Ganeriwalla

While not really mermaids, the Samah-Bajau people are a tribe of people who have evolved to live on and under water!

To give a little background about them: the Samah-Bajau are a tribe living in Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They have been called “Sea Nomads” or “Sea Gypsies” because they live in the water, only coming to

land for trade or for refuge during storms. They live in houseboats called Lepas.

The Bajau people spend an average of 5 hours a day underwater and can dive down to depths of more than 220 feet. They can stay submerged 60 feet underwater and hold their breaths for up to 13 minutes, without any diving equipment! This feat is particularly amazing because the average human can only do this for about a minute. The only piece of equipment the Bajaus wear while diving is wooden goggles. While fishing, they use nets and handmade spear guns to catch their prey.

So, what allows them to live like this?

Turns out it’s their spleens.

A study conducted compared the spleens of the Bajau people to the Saluan people, who live near the Bajaus but lead a farming lifestyle. The Bajau people were found to have spleens 50% larger than them. One of the functions of the spleen is to control the amount of blood in our body. The spleen contracts

when people dive, releasing a store of oxygenated red blood cells into the blood stream. The Bajau people, who are said to have larger spleens, will have a larger red blood cell reserve, which means that they will have more oxygen and thus, will be able to stay underwater for long.

Many tribespeople also artificially puncture their eardrums to deal with the pressure underwater. They usually do this when they are at a young age. Their vision has also improved over time, helping them find treasures like pearls, dried fish, and sea cucumbers, which they trade on land.

Another interesting fact is that Bajau people who haven’t gone diving previously are also born with bigger spleens. So, this means that this characteristic is passed down to the offspring from their parents. Whichever person doesn’t have an enlarged spleen ends up dying underwater, thus performing natural selection.

However, se

veral factors adversely affect the lifestyle of the Baju people. The global fish trade has disrupted their ecosystem. In addition, the trees which they use to make their boats are currently endangered. They are subject to harsh weather conditions and attacks by pirates. Most of them also live below the poverty level. Government programs are providing them with aid and benefits that make living life on land more practical. So today, a lot of Bajau people are opting to living on land instead.


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