Women diving into the ocean to pick abalones are known in Japan as “amas” or “sea women”. Ladies diving into waters of up to 20 meters deep have become one of Japan’s trademarks, despite the fact that many of the ‘amas’ have lost their lives throughout the years due to the risky diving that is made just by wearing a simple mask.
Some of them are in their 70s or 80s, but continue to dive.
Mieka Kitai, a 70-year-old diver in Mie prefecture, in western Japan, reaps the fruits of the sea in a way that has been practiced in parts of Japan for thousands of years.
“Finally, I got one,” she says as she climbs aboard the boat and pulls the mask off her weather-beaten face.
“Today, the fishing was better than I thought it would be,” said Kitai as she dropped an octopus and several turban shells, a prized shellfish delicacy, into her catch net.
“In the past you could get as many as 40 abalone in a day, but now getting four counts as a good day,” added another diver, Sumiko Nakagawa.
The diving can be dangerous, as women spend often more than a minute underwater. Some of them cannot hear well anymore, partly because of the high pressures experienced at depth. ‘Amas’ are recalling as well about an 80-year-old colleague who died in 2012 during a dive. “Her heart gave out,” said one of them.
While free diving for abalones used to be a profitable business years ago, now Pollution and overfishing have taken their toll on abalone, the main source of income for these women, according to the international press.
A kilogram of wild abalone sells for around Y8,000, although most consumed in Japan are now farmed.