Diving for pearls – the women free divers of Japan

photo by Yoshiyuki Iwase

photo by Yoshiyuki Iwase

In fact the ama-san or women free divers of Japan are not diving for pearls as was once thought but for abalone, namako (sea cucumber) and oysters. Some estimate that the practice is as much as two thousand years old. The ama, who are all women, dive without scuba equipment such as oxygen tanks although today they do wear wet suits. It was the women who did the diving because they were able to stay under water in the cold for longer than the men. Ama divers today are mostly older; many are in their fifties or sixties, some keep on diving into their eighties and nineties. Younger women tend to leave the remote island communities where the Ama live and travel to the cities.

These women are pursuing a traditional, deliberately sustainable and ecologically sensitive tradition. The men help the women with the nets, the boats and keeping house.

This beautiful video tells their story. The title comes from the strange whistling noise the women make before diving. This helps them to stay under water for longer.

Where the sea whistle echoes