These nomadic people can see like dolphins and hold their breath twice as long as you.

When your entire culture lives on the water, you develop some cool abilities.

Every little kid has wanted to be a fish.

Or a dolphin. Or a shark. Or some sort of spectacular underwater creature, at least once.

We all did it. Glub-glub-glubbin' with our hand-gills underwater, only to end up disappointed when everything beneath the surface of the waves looked all blurry and weird and we were forced to come back up for air.


GIF from "Full House."

But in Southeast Asia, there are a few incredible kids who are closer than the rest of us to achieving these aquatic dreams.

The Moken people can be found spread around the archipelagos of the Andaman Sea off the western coast of Thailand. They're just one of several nomadic Southeast Asian cultures that are sometimes referred to by the problematic name of "sea gypsies." 

There are estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 Moken although no official records exist. Their people are born on the sea, spend most of their lives on handmade wooden boats called kabangs, and go back out to the sea to die.

Moken children even learn how to swim before they walk so that they can help the rest of the tribe by diving for shellfish and eels and other underwater creatures they can eat or sell to survive. But they're only able to do this because of a special advantage: They can see clearly underwater and hold their breath for twice as long as the rest of us.

GIF from BBC/YouTube.

But it's not some rare Atlantean mutation; it's just another way of controlling their muscles.

A 1999 study from the University of Lund in Sweden aimed to uncover the secret of this uncanny skill. Was it evolution? Mutation? Or maybe just a simple body hack that the rest of us can learn from?

The lead researcher, Anna Gislén, integrated herself into the Moken community to study their habits and measure their sight. She discovered that the Moken children were able to see twice as well underwater as European children by simply shrinking their pupils to increase the depth of field and muscularly changing the shape of their eye lenses. It's the same way dolphins are able to see underwater. The Moken children could also willfully decrease their heart rates, allowing them to hold their breath for twice as long.

GIF from BBC/YouTube.

That means that, in theory, anyone can learn how to control their bodies to achieve these amazing underwater adaptations.

In a later stage of her research, Gislén brought a group of European children with her to Thailand — and after 11 sessions over the course of a month, their underwater eyesight improved as well.

“It was different for each child, but at some point their vision would just suddenly improve,” Gislén told the BBC. “I asked them whether they were doing anything different and they said, ‘No, I can just see better now’.”

That being said, the European children were more prone to red eye and other irritations after prolonged exposure to the saltwater with their newly adapted eyes. This suggests that the Moken children might have some unique evolutionary bonus after all.

GIF from BBC/YouTube.

Even more surprising is that adults appear to lose this special ability.

"When we age, our lenses become less flexible, so it makes sense that the adults lose the ability to accommodate underwater," Gislén said. This could explain why the adults tend to spear fish from their boats while the adaptable children dive down to the sea floor.

But now the Moken culture is in danger of disappearing, and their amazing aquatic abilities could die out with them.

Ever since the deadly tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean in 2004, it's been increasingly difficult for the Moken to compete with depleted resources and the encroaching modernization of seaside resorts. While the Thai government has tried to help the people recover from this natural disaster with housing and job training, their altruism has come at the cost of tradition — and, by extension, their incredible underwater abilities.

"You want to help keep people safe and give them the best parts of modern culture, but in doing so they lose their own culture," Gislén said. "They just don’t spend as much time in the sea anymore, so I doubt that any of the children that grow up these days in the tribe have this extraordinary vision."

"Moken are supposed to travel, to be nomadic, to travel freely. So if we cannot travel freely, we are dead, culturally at least," said Hong, a Moken community leader, in an interview with The Guardian. "Moken children use mobile phones, study English and choose to be educated. We've abandoned our old traditions so much we risk losing them entirely."

Moken adults lament Thailand's new ID laws. GIF from Freedive UK/YouTube.

Here's a short video about the amazing Moken people. Because sometimes sharing an incredible story is the only way to keep a struggling culture alive.

More

There's nothing like a good reunion story to get you misty in the ol' tear ducts. Kate Howard, the managing editor of Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, shared a story of randomly running into the dog she used to foster on Twitter. You know all those dog reunion movies? The ones with names like A Dog's Hope and A Dog's Sloppy Kiss? The ones that make you cry buckets no matter how hard you think your heart is? Well, this is that, but in real life.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture

The great thing about American democracy is the separation of powers. The federal government has rights, states have rights, counties have rights, cities have rights, and we, as people, have rights, too.

Heck, even animals have some rights in the good ol' U S of A.

The president of the United States is not a king or a dictator so a team of U.S. mayors, led by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, are asking to go over his head to negotiate directly at next month's UN climate change conference in Santiago, Chile.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Instagram / James Van Der Beek

About one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage, although it is believed the number might be higher because many miscarriages occur before the woman knows she is pregnant. Miscarriage is actually quite common, yet many people who've had one feel alone, partly because there's still a taboo around talking about it. In order to reduce the stigma surrounding the loss, James Van Der Beek opened up about the struggles him and his wife, Kimberly, experienced.

The Van Der Beeks, who have been married since 2010, have five children and one on the way. In a pre-taped segment on "Dancing with the Stars," Van Der Beek announced that his family will be welcoming a new baby. But the segment gave us a more personal look as Van Der Beek revealed they've experienced three miscarriages as well. "We've had five kids and three miscarriages," Van Der Beek told his dance partner, Emma Slater. "Miscarriage is something that people don't really talk about, and we wanted to recognize that it happens to people. We wanted to destigmatize that as much as we possibly could."

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Courtesy of Capital One

It was around Christmas 2018 and Jean Simpkins, 79, was looking out the window of her new three-bedroom apartment. Eleven floors above Washington, D.C., the grandmother of two gazed out at the lights of the city and became overwhelmed with gratitude. "The only thing I could say," Simpkins remembers, "was 'Thank you, Father.'"

Almost a year later, Simpkins still can't help but look at the apartment as a miracle — one she desperately needed. Fifteen years ago, when her grandson was born, she became his primary caregiver. Six years later, when her granddaughter was four, Simpkins was awarded full custody of her, too. She's spent the time since trying to give her grandchildren the life she knows they deserve, which has been difficult on a fixed income. On top of that, Simpkins worried that the neighborhood the family resided in wasn't the best influence on her kids. Something had to change.

Then she learned about Plaza West, a new development created by Mission First housing that would reserve 50 of its apartments specifically for families in which a grandparent or other older adult was raising children who were related to them. The waiting list, Simpkins says, was daunting. There are a great deal of grandfamilies in the D.C. area and she was sure it might be years before she got the call. But soon after applying, she was offered a choice between a two-bedroom and a three-bedroom apartment. She accepted the latter, sight unseen. She knew that each of her grandchildren needed space of their own.

Keep Reading Show less
Future Edge
True
Capital One