For more than two thousand years, women living along the Japanese peninsula have established an extraordinary livelihood diving deep into the Pacific for abalone, oysters, pearls, seaweed, and other shellfish.
Ama (海女 in Japanese), literally meaning ‘women of the sea,’ is recorded as early as 750 AD in the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, the Man’yoshu. Legend has it that the Ama women were once seafaring gypsies of the Asian seas. The tradition is still maintained across many coastal parts of Japan, however, the original practices of these naked sea-goddesses have largely been lost.
Traditional Ama divers wore only a fundoshi (loincloth) and a tenugi (bandana) - an experienced diver could go as deep as 30 meters and hold her breath for as long as two minutes at a time.
The ama dove from the shore or from boats, with rope strung around their waists, and men would wait in the boats above to pull them back up. The Ama would then resurface, opening their mouths slightly as they exhaled, and making a low whistle known as isobue.
They would work up to four hours a day in small shifts. The Japanese believed that women were better suited to this unique career due to the extra layer of fat they have on their bodies, insulating them against the Baltic waters during long periods under water.