16 May 2011


In southern Japan women freedivers have been collecting the flora and fauna of the sea for 2,000 years. Traditionally they wore only loincloths in far-from-warm waters.

I'm not sure when or by whom these photographs were taken, but they may be the work of Fosco Maraini in his 1962 book, Hekura: The Diving Girls' Island.

(All images above from SkindivingHistory.com.)

 'Course traditions don't get much more exciting than mostly-nude women in the water with pearls and sharks and whatnot. These divers are known as ama, or sea women, and they form a cultural bridge connecting the fantasies of all of humankind.

(The first Ama. Via Japonisme.)

A Japanese myth about the first ama tells of a perfect pearl stolen by a dragon king. Here's the rest of the tale, from Japonisme:

Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720) went in search of the pearl to the isolated area where he met and married a beautiful pearl diver named Ama, who bore him a son. Ama, full of love for their son, vowed to help recover the stolen pearl. After many failed attempts, Ama was finally successful when the dragon and grotesque creatures guarding it were lulled to sleep by music. Upon reclaiming the treasure, she came under pursuit by the awakened sea creatures. She cut open her breast to place the pearl inside for safekeeping; the resulting flow of blood clouded the water and aided her escape. She died from the resulting wound but is revered for her selfless act of sacrifice for her husband Fuhito and their son.

Interestingly, ama improve their endurance underwater over time, peaking in their middle years, with some managing incredible longevity. According to this documentary, the oldest working diver on Hegura Island is 92 years old.

(Haenyo, or sea women, statue in Jeju, Korea. Credit: Chosun Bimbo 2 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Korea has women divers too—called haenyo, or sea women. Here are a few excerpts from a 1996 article in Diver magazine describing their way of life:

At the top of a rocky cliff on the South Korean island of Jeju, several people sit motionless in the lotus position, meditating. They are dressed in shimmering black neoprene, white cotton head covers and old-fashioned, oval masks. These are the Hae Nyeo female divers, who practise a tough, dangerous profession that has continued for centuries. After meditating they will enter the sea to dive, breath-holding, for shells, tunicates, octopus, crabs, seaweeds—anything on the seabed that is edible. They hardly ever use boats, simply jumping in from the rocky coastline and swimming sometimes long distances to get to the reefs they wish to hunt...

I enter the water with my camera. A Hae Nyeo diver hovers at the surface 15m above me, and raises her head to take her last deep breath before shooting down head first. Quick and nimble, fishlike, she glides over rocks, under overhangs and squeezes into narrow openings. Her well trained eyes quickly pick out wanted prey—shells and starfish—and she uses her piece of metal rapidly to detach them. It is amazing how long this woman can hold her breath and work hard under water. Back at the surface she puts the prey in the circle net before heading straight back down for another attempt. For an hour I observe the Hae Nyeo. Their physical performance is absolutely astonishing, each female diver heading down to depths of up to 20m about 30 times over...

Nowadays, the Hae Nyeo divers are well respected and honoured, but this was not always so. The women were not accepted by high society. They were thought to be uneducated, wild, stubborn, much too independent, and the vocabulary they used was considered outlandish. As if this was not enough, they dared to dive into the sea half naked! The Hae Nyeo have, though, maintained a special community of their own. Their appearance and vocabulary still reflect the fact that they are tough and self-confident women.
Despite their abilities, the female divers do get into trouble. High waves and currents can lead them to complete exhaustion, and through an interpreter I learn that one still-active 70-year-old diver has lost "many" of her female companions to the sea. Some, she says, had become stuck while trying to get a shell of extraordinary size out of an opening; and others had been taken away by strong currents. The worst accident the old female diver remembers is a shark attack, in which a female diver who must have hurt herself badly and lost a lot of blood was tracked down by a big shark and killed.

Soon, says the elderly diver, the female divers will have disappeared for good. Despite the good money to be earned from selling seafood, young girls nowadays don't want to continue the breath-hold hunting traditions of the Hae Nyeo. A way of life that has existed for centuries could soon be gone.

Sadly, it seems the younger women have been tamed.
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