The Bajau people of Southeast Asia are among the most accomplished divers in the world. In the summer of 2015, Melissa Ilardo got to see how good they are firsthand. She remembers diving with Pai Bayubu, who had already gone fairly deep when he saw a giant clam, 30 to 50 feet below him. “He just dropped down,” Ilardo recalls. “He pointed at it, and then he was there. Underwater, the Bajau are as comfortable as most people are on land. They walk on the seafloor. They have complete control of their breath and body. They spear fish, no problem, first try.”
Sometimes known as “sea nomads,” the Bajau have lived at sea for more than 1,000 years, on small houseboats that float in the waters off Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Traditionally, they came ashore only to trade for supplies or to shelter from storms. They collect their food by free diving to depths of more than 230 feet. They have no wet suits or flippers, and use only wooden goggles and spearguns of their own making. Sometimes, they rupture their own eardrums at an early age to make diving easier.
Not all of them dive; some avoid it entirely. But those who do take the skill to an extreme. Each day, they’ll spend more than five hours underwater, capturing between two and 18 pounds of fish and octopuses. The average dive lasts for just half a minute, but the Bajau can hold their breath for far longer. In the clip below, from the BBC documentary Human Planet, a man named Sulbin stays underwater for almost three minutes. “I focus my mind on breathing,” he told the BBC. “I only dive once I’m totally relaxed.”
Their abilities are almost certainly shaped by experience and training. But Ilardo has found evidence that they are also genetically adapted to life in the sea.