Sea Gypsies of Malaysia


Whilst perusing the BBC website today I came across an article titled; ‘What freediving does to your body’. Charlie is fanatical about the water, the only terrible drawback that comes with living in Bristol is its land locked situation. Growing up in Jersey, which is only nine by five miles meant that he could enjoy the English Channel’s waft from the island’s centre stone, and indeed, from every point of the island (he will dispute this). I naturally believe that because of the island upbringing and his four seasons tanned skin, it must have been an idyllic world, playing bent over rock pools full of starfish and surfing from birth (he will smirk. Then dispute this). His deep love of water and lack of it in Bristol, means that when we go on holiday anywhere near the ocean (basically every holiday), Charlie is in it for 90% of the time.

Unlike him, I have my open water (the first, most basic one) diving qualification from Bali 2004-  so long ago. The first time I dived was in a strong current off a boat somewhere off the Indonesian island. I remember dropping down to only three or four metres and the current sweeping me away. I tried to grab onto a passing fin (of a human) I could see was closer to the boat, but distressingly, I was swept off in a murky sand storm. Combined with how weird the breathing can be on a first dive, I thought I was probably going to die. Fortunately I just got a double ear infection. Ketut our instructor, rescued myself and my buddy after about three minutes and whilst concerned, chuckled heartily in our faces.

The following dives off stringy Indonesian boats, in shipwrecks and off deserted beaches were obviously incredible. And the dives following that were too: sharks, turtles, neon fish, lion fish, trigger fish, stingrays, eels – so, SO many beautiful/ugly/scary fish. And sadly some dying coral (Ningaloo Reef). Nothing compares to being underwater like this.

Unfortunately diving aint cheap, so I spent a year lugging around a snorkel and fins, snorkelling my way to glimpse the homes of fish. Luckily I wasn’t trying to do this in the hideously cold areas of the UK and was living in Australia and traveling about. I spent a large part of that year staring at creatures of the sea and living on beaches eating beans with salted hair and an entirely sunburnt one half of my body. Sitting on twigs one evening, you can not imagine the pain.

As diving is pretty costly and Charlie is not so keen on the idea, we tend to snorkel about. And pretend to freedive. We both do these small metre freedives from the beginning of each holiday, then build them up until we think our lungs are bigger and we can reach five or six metres. He spends more time on this and will be out there in the dark blue bit, after the turquoise luscious bit, for as long as it takes for me to become worried. But by the end we both feel like we are fish. Of course compared to the real freedivers we are zero.

And by this I mean the sea gypsies of Malaysia.


It is those who have freedived from a young age, as part of their everyday lives that are truly a reminder that the body can do SO much more than work Windows Excel and Outlook Express. The Bajau people of South-East Asia live in houseboats and houses built on stilts in the water. They find that when they are on land for a long time, they tend to get ‘land sick’. Fishing for their food, the sea gypsies can stay underwater for up to five minutes. FIVE. Freediving from a young age, their children’s eyes adapt to their surroundings, so much so that they have two times clearer vision underwater than land dwellers. Their eardrums are also often quickly blown because when dropping 20 metres plus underwater, they don’t equalise their ears and the pressure destroys the drum. The casually attained depth affects the lungs and heart too. At 20m, water pressure is almost three times what it is on the surface. This squeezes the lungs already deprived of oxygen, whilst the heartbeat slows to around 30 beats a minute. But they’re all very relaxed about it.

The BBC spoke to and filmed Bajau fisherman, Sulbin, who wears homemade wooden goggles and smokes like a chimney apparently.  After going into a trance-like state before entering the water, once in, he can maintain perfect buoyancy.

Watch this:

From BBC website;

This degree of mind control is crucial, says freediving instructor Emma Farrell, the author of One Breath, A Reflection on Freediving. “You have to be warm and relaxed – you don’t want to hyperventilate before taking your last breath.” The mammalian dive reflex – seen in aquatic animals such as dolphins and otters, and in humans to a lesser extent – helps, says Farrell.

“It’s a series of automatic adjustments we make when submerged in cold water. It reduces the heart rate and metabolism to slow the rate you use oxygen.”During breath-holding, oxygen stores reduce and the body starts diverting blood from hands and feet to the vital organs. Our bodies have a way to compensate. Underwater pressure constricts the spleen, squeezing out extra haemoglobin, the protein in red corpuscles that carry oxygen around the body. “Not enough research has been done to know if it wears off when you’re not diving,” says Farrell. “But I know people who do a lot of deep training – as Sulbin does – whose blood is like that of people living at high altitude.”


A lean physique is more efficient at using oxygen. And having little body fat makes Sulbin less buoyant, able to walk across the reef bed with ease. “This type of freediving – repeatedly diving to depths of 10 to 20m – carries the greatest risk of decompression sickness,” says Farrell. “But you are less likely to get the bends if you are lean, or very well hydrated.”

Sea gypsies are living on the sway of the water and pushing the human body’s capabilities, succeeding in training it. Incredible and calm, not spluttery and flappy.

Sulbin “I focus my mind on breathing. I only dive once I’m totally relaxed.”

Focus and Relax.


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