“When the tide came in, these kids started swimming. But not like I had seen before. They were more underwater than above water, they had their eyes wide open – they were like little dolphins.”
Deep in the island archipelagos on the Andaman Sea, and along the west coast of Thailand live small tribes called the Moken people, also known as sea-nomads. Their children spend much of their day in the sea, diving for food. They are uniquely adapted to this job – because they can see underwater. And it turns out that with a little practice, their unique vision might be accessible to any young person.
In 1999, Anna Gislen at the University of Lund, in Sweden was investigating different aspects of vision, when a colleague suggested that she might be interested in studying the unique characteristics of the Moken tribe. “I’d been sitting in a dark lab for three months, so I thought, ‘yeah, why not go to Asia instead’,” says Gislen.
Gislen and her six-year old daughter travelled to Thailand and integrated themselves within the Moken communities, who mostly lived on houses sat upon poles. When the tide came in, the Moken children splashed around in the water, diving down to pick up food that lay metres below what Gislen or her daughter could see. “They had their eyes wide open, fishing for clams, shells and sea cucumbers, with no problem at all,” she says.
Gislen set up an experiment to test just how good the children’s underwater vision really was. The kids were excited about joining in, says Gislen, “they thought it was just a fun game.”
The kids had to dive underwater and place their heads onto a panel. From there they could see a card displaying either vertical or horizontal lines. Once they had stared at the card, they came back to the surface to report which direction the lines travelled. Each time they dived down, the lines would get thinner, making the task harder. It turned out that the Moken children were able to see twice as well as European children who performed the same experiment at a later date.
What was going on? To see clearly above land, you need to be able to refract light that enters the eye onto the retina. The retina sits at the back of the eye and contains specialised cells, which convert the light signals into electrical signals that the brain interprets as images.
Light is refracted when it enters the human eye because the outer cornea contains water, which makes it slightly denser than the air outside the eye. An internal lens refracts the light even further.
When the eye is immersed in water, which has about the same density as the cornea, we lose the refractive power of the cornea, which is why the image becomes severely blurred.
Gislen figured that in order for the Moken children to see clearly underwater, they must have either picked up some adaption that fundamentally changed the way their eyes worked, or they had learned to use their eyes differently under water.
She thought the first theory was unlikely, because a fundamental change to the eye would probably mean the kids wouldn’t be able to see well above water. A simple eye test proved this to be true – the Moken children could see just as well above water as European children of a similar age.
It had to be some kind of manipulation of the eye itself, thought Gislen. There are two ways in which you can theoretically improve your vision underwater. You can change the shape of the lens – which is called accommodation – or you can make the pupil smaller, thereby increasing the depth of field.
Their pupil size was easy to measure – and revealed that they can constrict their pupils to the maximum known limit of human performance. But this alone couldn’t fully explain the degree to which their sight improved. This led Gislen to believe that accommodation of the lens was also involved.
“We had to make a mathematical calculation to work out how much the lens was accommodating in order for them to see as far as they could,” says Gislen. This showed that the children had to be able to accommodate to a far greater degree than you would expect to see underwater.
Moken children are able to make their pupils smaller and change their lens shape. Seals and dolphins have a similar adaptation.
“Normally when you go underwater, everything is so blurry that the eye doesn’t even try to accommodate, it’s not a normal reflex,” says Gislen. “But the Moken children are able to do both – they can make their pupils smaller and change their lens shape. Seals and dolphins have a similar adaptation.”
Gislen was able to test a few Moken adults in the same way. They showed no unusual underwater vision or accommodation – perhaps explaining why the adults in the tribe caught most of their food by spear fishing above the surface. “When we age, our lenses become less flexible, so it makes sense that the adults lose the ability to accommodate underwater,” says Gislen.
Gislen wondered whether the Moken children had a genetic anomaly to thank for their ability to see underwater or whether it was just down to practice. To find out, she asked a group of European children on holiday in Thailand, and a group of children in Sweden to take part in training sessions, in which they dived underwater and tried to work out the direction of lines on a card. After 11 sessions across one month, both groups had attained the same underwater acuity as the Moken children.
“It was different for each child, but at some point their vision would just suddenly improve,” says Gislen. “I asked them whether they were doing anything different and they said, ‘No, I can just see better now’.”
She did notice, however, that the European kids would experience red eyes, irritated by the salt in the water, whereas the Moken children appeared to have no such problem. “So perhaps there is some adaptation there that allows them to dive down 30 times without any irritation,” she says.
Gislen recently returned to Thailand to visit the Moken tribes, but things had changed dramatically. In 2004, a tsunami created by a giant earthquake within the Indian Ocean destroyed much of the Moken’s homeland. Since then, the Thai government has worked hard to move them onto the land, building homes that are further inland and employing members of the tribe to work in the National Park. “It’s difficult,” says Gislen. “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.”
In unpublished work, Gislen tested the same kids that were in her original experiment. The Moken children, now in their late teens, were still able to see clearly underwater. She wasn’t able to test many adults as they were too shy, but she is certain that they would have lost the ability to see underwater as they got older. “The adult eye just isn’t capable of that amount of accommodation,” she says.
Unfortunately, the children in Gislen’s experiments may be the last of the tribe to possess the ability to see so clearly underwater. “They just don’t spend as much time in the sea anymore,” she says, “so I doubt that any of the children that grow up these days in the tribe have this extraordinary vision.”