As April approaches, pearls come to mind and, with them, the incredible – and somehow not commonly known?! – history of Japanese Ama pearl divers or “women of the sea” AKA mermaids, highly-skilled badass freediving mermaids. The awe-inspring tradition of Ama can be traced back as far as the year 750 in the oldest known anthology of Japanese poetry. Originally working as fisherwomen, Ama dove to depths of up to 30 meters to collect abalone, seaweed, and shellfish to sell, and to eat, holding their breathe at depth for up to two minutes in freezing water without the aid of modern scuba equipment, or even a protective layer of clothing. The Ama custom has always been practiced by women versus men due to the higher fat content of the female body keeping the diver necessarily warmer in frigid temps.
The second, and more lucrative, chapter in the Ama story began with Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of Mikimoto Pearl, sourcing his pearls from the Ama divers. He even developed a method by which Ama “collected the oysters from the seabed so that the pearl-producing nucleus may be inserted… then carefully returned the oysters to the seabed – in a place where they were protected from external dangers (such as typhoons and red tide)” – then re-collected the pearls upon maturity to be sold my Mikimoto. Though Ama traditionally wore only a loincloth for ease of motion, Mikimoto divers wore fully-covered white cotton dive suits as to be less shocking for curious foreigners who traveled to see the Ama in action.
The Ama tradition continues to this day in parts of Japan, though it is seen by younger generations (weirdly!) to be a job for the elderly. The “aging ranks” of Ama divers, however, are determined to attract successors to carry on their beautiful tradition – read about it here.
(info and images courtesy of http://www.mikimoto.co.uk/blog/about-our-heritage/ama-pearl-divers/ and http://gakuran.com/ama-the-pearl-diving-mermaids-of-japan/)