Oxygen is an absolute necessity to humans (hence mermaids only existing as mythical beings). That being said, one tribe in Malaysia has come pretty darn close to getting by without it. Scientists from around the world are trying to understand these people’s incredible adaptions that are putting the Little Mermaid herself to shame.
The idea of a life spent on the water is incredibly romantic. Those breathtaking photos of small homes hovering on the crystal-clear ocean are constantly going viral. Yet, as most of us are fairly committed to dry land, it begs the question: who actually lives there?
While pictures make it seem like living this way would be the ultimate oasis, life on the water comes with its own challenges. The Bajau people, who have lived in and on the water surrounding Asia for thousands of years, know a thing or two about its turmoil.
Multiple legends offer accounts of how the Bajau ended up spending 60% of their lives in water. In one, the “sea nomads” are sent to rescue a princess. When they couldn’t retrieve her, they stayed in the water to avoid the king’s wrath.
Another folktale tells of a giant stingray that brought them out to sea. No matter what version, the ending is the same: a group of people that live and work in the ocean. Logistically, there are many things they must work around.
Most members of this tribe scattered across Asia do not have a home at all on the shore. Essential to this lifestyle is their small boats called “lepa-lepa.” The most incredible aspect of their lives on the waves are the homes they have constructed.
Instead of having a traditional foundation, their homes are famously built on stilts rising just above the water’s surface. In the event of a major storm, they will evacuate to the shore. Every other day of their lives is spent out in the ocean.
In their unique situation, they truly live off what the ocean provides. The Bajau people have become expert divers and fishermen in order to survive. Most often, they utilize spears to catch fish and their diving ability to scour the ocean floor.
Therein lies both the problem and solution for this distinctive group. Being an expert fisherman is great and all, but you’re still beholden to the laws of being a human. One of the most basic of which involves needing oxygen on a very regular basis.
Which is a problem for humans because diving too deep underwater may cause blood vessels in the lungs to rupture, often causing death. So how in the world do these superhuman swimmers navigate the ocean like they have gills?
Darwin would be stoked to see how this group has evolved to thrive in an ocean environment. And so was geneticist Melissa Ilardo, after she observed their behavior. In fact, she conducted a study to further understand the Bajau people’s affinity for the depths.
Surprisingly, the physical element that controls how long you can hold your breath underwater isn’t your lungs. All those breath-holding contests you lost brain cells to in your youth were controlled by another organ: the spleen.
Thanks to a study conducted on aquatic mammals like seals, scientists learned that underwater, the size of the spleen makes a huge difference. Oddly, this organ acts as a backup supplier of oxygen in case of an emergency. When all oxygen is depleted elsewhere, the spleen comes in with the assist. But were these findings only exclusive to aquatic animals?
Well, that’s what IIardo aimed to find out. The aquatic mammal study determined the larger the spleen, the longer you can hold your breath underwater. Remarkably, some members of the tribe are known to hold their breath for almost 20 minutes. But even with their above-average breath control, Ilardo wasn’t prepared for what the results revealed.
She compared the spleen size of the Bajau to those of a sample population on the mainland. The oceanic tribe boasted spleens about fifty percent larger than their on-shore counterparts. Melissa Ilardo confirmed her theory and made another unexpected discovery.
While examining the DNA of the Bajau people, Ilardo found a specific gene called “PDE10A.” This particular coding gene controls thyroid hormones and has been linked to spleen size, thus offering DNA evidence of the tribe’s adaptation.
Melissa Ilardo and her team of researchers do not know when the Bajau left the mainland and began this evolutionary change, but it is estimated at around 15,000 years ago. Aside from the wonder of the Bajau, the discovery meant a great deal to the larger community, namely the medical community.
In the world of trauma medicine, oxygen levels are a major concern. Understanding these adaptations that allow for reserve oxygen in extreme situations could have practical implications for doctors. The Bajau tribe could end up inadvertently saving lives.
The tribe has been doing this for centuries, but the modern world is proving a challenge to their way of life. The members of the tribe do not have citizenship on the mainland and industrial fishing has made it difficult to catch fish.
Sadly, the perils of the 21st century have caused some members of the ancient tribe to abandon their maritime lifestyle and head for dry land. The rapidly changing world requires them to continue to adapt not only to deep waters, but to modern life.
Remote cultures like the Bajau are difficult to get to study without immersive research, and some islands have gone to great lengths to stay out of reach. Despite being visible from the shores of Kauai, a small mountainous island on the horizon remains unreachable. Locals have accepted this neighboring island as just a part of the landscape, but the truth of the forbidden island is much bigger than it seems.
The silhouette that’s visible off the shores of Kauai belongs to another Hawaiian island that’s different from the rest. Where much of the native Hawaiian culture has been lost over the years due to colonization, this place remains nearly perfectly preserved throughout all this time. And hardly anyone even knows it exists.
Just 17 miles off the coast of Kauai lies — Niihau — the smallest of the Hawaiian islands. For over 150 years, Niihau banned all visitors from the outside world, earning the nickname “the forbidden island.” Given its extreme exclusivity, Niihau attracts the attention of travelers and celebrities wishing to stay on its shores. But it’s the backstory behind Niihau that’s more fascinating than its restricted status.
In 1864 Scotswoman Elizabeth Sinclair – who owned a plantation in New Zealand – bought Niihau from King Kamehameha V of Hawaii for a sum of $10,000. Though it is still unclear exactly why Kamehameha V agreed to the offer, he did so with a caveat that shaped the entire fate of the small island.
When the family purchased the land, you see, King Kamehameha V gave them some advice. According to a 2002 article by The New York Times, the monarch said, “Niihau is yours. But the day may come when Hawaiians are not as strong in Hawaii as they are now. When that day comes, please do what you can to help them.”
With the king’s words in mind, the Sinclairs made preserving the island’s culture a top priority. They worked to maintain the native Hawaiian culture, known as “kahiki.” In fact, Hawaiian is still widely spoken on Niihau today, making it one of the few locations on the planet where the language remains commonplace.
And at the beginning of their ownership of Niihau, the Calvinist Sinclairs declared that all residents of the island must attend church on Sundays. Given that missionaries had already converted Niihauans to Christianity decades earlier, however, the rule wasn’t too difficult for the locals to obey.
Then, in the years that followed, Sinclair’s grandson Aubrey Robinson established a sugar plantation on the nearby island of Kauai. He also set about planting 10,000 trees on Niihau each year. And his efforts worked in increasing rainfall on the island, making it more habitable and sustainable in turn.
But just a few decades later in 1893, the Hawaiian Monarchy came to end with the annexation by the American government. As the Hawaiian islands were being pulled into statehood, the culture and traditions became suppressed — except for on Niihau, that is.
Because of its status as private property, the Sinclairs were able to create a greater degree of separation between themselves and the encroaching United States. This really came into effect in the 1930s when Niihau made a dramatic proclamation.
In order to preserve Niihau’s unique way of life, then, the location has been off-limits to the general public since 1930s. That decision was made when a polio epidemic struck the Hawaiian Islands, during which the Robinsons decided to close off Niihau from the rest of the world.
And Bruce Robinson has explained the reasoning behind the island’s shutdown. He told Good Morning America, “My uncle wanted to protect the residents here from the epidemic. It was forbidden to come out here unless you had a doctor’s certificate, and there was a two-week quarantine. And it worked. We never got polio out here.”
Even when the threat of polio subsided, however, Niihau remained largely inaccessible to the public. And as a result, the mystery surrounding the island intensified, leaving many outsiders intrigued as to what life there is like. Yet the Robinson family themselves are somewhat perplexed over the fascination with their land.
“[Locals] go back and forth all the time. In fact, every person on Niihau has been to the mainland,” Robinson explained. “They know all about it. It’s a well-traveled population – totally bilingual, some working on three languages. While it is an ancient type of culture, they’re a very modern type of people.”
Many Niihauans also continue to farm and fish – much like their ancestors did. And for some of the natives, these activities continue to provide sources of income. Other residents, meanwhile, have found work on the Robinsons’ ranch, while a handful relies on welfare payments.
The Robinsons ensured that their workers were all given wages, too – in honor of the family’s promise to the king that they would treat the island’s inhabitants well. They also provided residents of Niihaua with free homes – a luxury from which they still benefit today. However, the locals have no contractual rights, meaning they can be evicted from their houses without notice.
But while the Robinson family also provide locals with free education for children and free meat, the infrastructure on Niihau remains basic. No provisions have been made for running water, for instance, and so residents are forced to collect rainwater for their everyday needs.
What’s more, since there are no electricity lines on the island, homes are run exclusively on solar power. But while that may all sound primitive, Bruce Robinson – the grandson of Aubrey Robinson and current co-owner of Niihau – has nevertheless explained that such a system does has its benefits.
And Robinson gave an insight into the living conditions on Niihau in a 2010 interview with Good Morning America. He said, “Every house has solar power. Every house has its own water system. At the time when we had hurricanes, where the rest of the islands took months to recover, Niihau took three days, and we were back on our feet; the schools were running and everything.”
It’s worth noting, too, that motor vehicles are also fairly scarce on Niihau. The island has no proper roads, you see, and so residents mostly use horses to get around. In addition, many of the locals make regular trips over to Kauai, where there are more jobs, more schools and better access to medical care. And with that in mind, many residents of Niihau consider both islands as their homes.
When Niihauans are not working, meanwhile, they like to spend time at the beach. Alternatively, they watch pre-downloaded television shows or films on their tablets. Hawaiian music remains a popular part of island life, too, with many residents able to play the guitar or ukulele. Radio signals, on the other hand, are a bit temperamental.
And with no stores on Niihau, residents rely on a weekly barge of goods that are sent to them from Kauai. Often, the boat is filled with groceries that have been bought by relatives and which are shipped free of charge. No alcohol or tobacco makes the voyage, though, as the Robinsons have banned both of those substances – along with firearms.
So, given the limited changes that the Robinsons have made to Niihau, the island has remained largely the same since the family first purchased it more than 150 years ago. “We’ve tried to maintain the request of the king when it was turned over,” Bruce Robinson explained to Good Morning America. “We maintain the island for the people and continue to work it as he had.”
“When the king sold the island to the family, he said to the family, ‘These are now your subjects,’” Robinson added. “‘You are to take care of them the best you can for the rest of time.’ And our family has continued that.”
“[Niihau is] an island that’s maintained the original Hawaiian lifestyle, the kahiki lifestyle, which is traditional – back to the 1800s and earlier. And it’s still alive today, and it’s working,” Robinson continued. “But it’s under extreme pressure from the outside world, and we’re trying to save it from that.”
“It’s just a little cattle ranch we operate in our own way,” Helen Matthew Robinson, head of the family until her death in 2002, told The New York Times in 1970. “There’s nothing sensational about [Niihau]. I don’t see why everyone is so interested in it.”
And yet the obsession with Niihau has failed to die down. After all, the only individuals who truly get to experience the island for themselves today are the Robinsons, the island’s roughly 170 residents, U.S. navy personnel and government officials. The chances of visiting Niihau otherwise are slim – even for the most avid traveler.
“We’ve had a lot of requests – including [from] people who are about to die – and they have to come over and see the last place on earth they haven’t seen,” Robinson revealed to Good Morning America. Apparently, the family even turned down a visit from Mick Jagger, after the Rolling Stones star had asked to take a helicopter to the island.
Even some of Niihau’s closest neighbors in Kauai have never stepped foot on the island. To them, the patch of land is merely a familiar silhouette on the horizon. And for visitors to the west of Kauai, Niihau can be seen only as a distinctive backdrop to the area’s world-famous sunsets.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the island isn’t significant to other Hawaiians. Mike Faye, for instance, who grew up on Kauai, told Good Morning America about the importance that Niihau holds for him. He said, “Growing up as a kid, in the mornings the sun would reflect off the mountains [in Niihau], and it was almost like you could reach out and touch the place.”
“Niihau was always like a silent sentinel out there across the ocean, giving us some comfort from storms and the wide-open ocean out beyond,” Faye added. “Niihau gives us that point on the horizon out there. It’s close. It’s always there. It guards us from that side of the world.”
So, thanks to the limited access to Niihau, the island remains an unspoiled idyll. And owing to the conservation efforts of the Robinsons, the land is now thriving. The family has documented and preserved many of the island’s plant resources, in fact, with the clan also working to protect the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
Hawaiians call the mammal in question “llio-holo-i-ka-uaua” – or “dog that runs in rough water.” According to Good Morning America, though, it is believed to be the most endangered species of seal in the world. Only 150 of the animals lived in the Hawaiian Islands in 2010 – 87 of which called Niihau home.
And Niihau itself acts as a crucial nursery for Hawaiian monk seals. It seems that the animals feel safe there, too, since the beaches are often strewn with the marine creatures relaxing in the sun. Yet the relationship between the animals and the island’s locals hasn’t always been a positive one.
“The natives knew that the seals took so much food that they felt it endangered their existence, so they killed all the seals,” Robinson explained to Good Morning America. “So, what we’re doing now is working with the federal government, helping with the seal count and seeing what we can do to save them.”
And the chance to see the endangered seals was likely a major draw when the Robinson family started running tours to Niihau. These trips see tourists board helicopters in Kauai before flying to the Forbidden Island. While in Niihau, moreover, visitors spend three hours exploring the northern shore, during which they can snorkel in crystal waters and enjoy deserted beaches.
The Robinsons decided to open up Niihau to tourists in order to offset the cost of the helicopter that they run, which ferries residents off the island in the case of emergencies. “The limited tourism that we’re doing now is good in that it helps to defray that cost,” Robinson explained. “But the real benefit to us is that its low impact. We like the low-impact tourism.”
Describing what visitors to Niihau can expect, Robinson added, “When you come out to Niihau, what you are immediately going to notice is the peace and quiet [and] the fact that you’re going out to a beach that doesn’t have any people on it – doesn’t have a lot of foot tracks on it. It’s an open, empty beach.”
However, even with the relaxation of Niihau’s access restrictions, rumors about the so-called Forbidden Island remain rife. Robinson revealed, “There are stories that have been generated of captives living out here – people who can’t get out to the cities. That is totally false.”
It appears that Niihau holds a special place in the hearts of the islanders, too – even those who have left. Wehi Kaaumoana, who moved away from Niihau in his 20s, told HuffPost in 2016, “Life is good over there. Everything you need is there. You can go to the beach, and you’ll have only footprints on the beach. It’s beautiful there.”
And Robinson seems to concur with this assessment of the island. When pleading for lawmakers to protect Niihau in 2013, he said, according to Hawaii News Now, “[There’s] a feeling of inner peace and renewal that we don’t understand in the outside world. The Western culture has lost it, and the rest of the islands have lost it. The only place it’s left is on Niihau.”