Huddled around a roaring fire, elderly Japanese women share cooked seafood caught fresh that day. Their wooden hut is filled with laughter as they chat about their lives and love of diving. With an average age of 65, you’d think these women were long retired, but they’re far from it. They’ve just spent two hours in coastal waters free diving to catch shellfish and abalone, and now they’re taking a break to warm up before they head out to sea again for another few hours. These remarkable ladies are the ama divers of Japan.
Meaning “sea women,” ama can be either male or female, although the vast majority of ama in Japan are women. They are adept free divers who’ve been making their living from the oceans since their teens by collecting seaweed, shellfish, sea urchins, pearls, and prized abalone to sell at market. They work the seas for 10 months of the year, diving four hours a day over two sessions in all weather conditions.
In 1956, ama diving was once a strong community of around 17,611 Japanese divers, but now only 2,174 remain, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Toba Sea-Folk Museum. The largest community of around 800 live in Toba and Shima in the Mie prefecture.
Traditionally, women dived in nothing but a fundoshi (loincloth) and a tenugui (bandana), armed with only a floating ring attached to a net and a shucking tool called awabi-okoshi (abalone scraper). Implements like these made of deer horn were found at a Shirahama archaeological site and dated the practice back 2,000 years, though it possibly has been practiced 5,000 years.
They generally dive 16 to 39 feet (5–12 meters) unassisted. And some ama can dive to depths of up to 82 feet (25 meters) without a breathing apparatus, an impressive feat considering most scuba divers are trained to go down to 98 feet (30 meters). When divers resurface, they use a breathing technique unique to the ama known as an isobue—a piercing whistle that helps regulate their breathing between dives. It’s also a way of signalling to others in their diving group that they’re safe.