The freediving traditions of ama
Three days in a row, I call Sakamoto from inland — where the air is still and the sun is warm — seemingly perfect for a boat ride. But thrice in a row, he reports impossible waves. While winter seas are predictably rough and summer seas are even and calm, spring proves the seas are capricious.
There are two routes to Minato, a small village where a community of ama (freedivers) still work. One route passes farmed fields carved from dense overgrowth, the other skirts along the edge of blue that stretches toward islands on the horizon. Whether through the mountains or along the sea, both routes are winding and long and converge at Minato.
The legend of ama tells of a small group of women whose life’s work was diving for pearl-bearing oysters while holding their breath. But for nearly 2,000 years, both men and women have been breath-hold diving with minimal equipment in the waters that surround Japan. They harvest the far less glamorous mollusks, echinoderms, and seaweed from the ocean floor.
In Yakataishi, a ward of Minato, sixteen men are registered ama (海士), a title that translates roughly as sea warriors. At 63 years old, Hatsuo Sakamoto is the oldest of the group. While a few ama marry into the occupation, Sakamoto, like most, grew up here and earned the privilege to dive through family lineage. He inherited his rights to diving and took his father’s place in the water 38 years ago. Ama regulations prohibit more than one active diver per family, so like all new divers, Sakamoto learned from the elders in the group. “Three or four people dive together,” he explains. “You join them and learn side by side.” Though it is slowgoing in the beginning, a diver can generally learn the ropes over the course of a ten month season. “In the first month, the limitations of your lung capacity may only permit you to dive two meters at a time. But as you learn technique, you train your lungs. From there, you can go deeper.”
On average, Sakamoto dives to a depth of 5 meters. He collects sazae (horned turban mollusks), sea cucumbers, and abalone year-round. From April to September, he also gathers sea urchin. “From the surface, you start by aiming at a particular spot. However once you dive, the current pulls you with it and you can’t always reach your target.” It is human physicality engaged with the movements of the ocean. “And in the end, it’s impossible to take everything, even if you are able to see it.”
The ama charter defines the cooperative’s laws and was enacted long ago by common consent. As with most laws of the sea in coastal communities around the country, they are the laws as they have been for centuries, of those who work the waters. The ama regulations dictating that a father must retire before his son begins to dive provide two protections: they restrict the harvesting of finite resources and maintain an economic equilibrium among divers within the small community.
All ama regulations fall into one of two categories: those that protect the divers and those that safeguard the ocean’s supply. Toward the latter, ama in Yakataishi do not dive on the three days of the month that end in zero. And from November 1st to December 20th, ama take a break to allow the underwater populations to regenerate.
When asked why he chose to take on his father’s calling, Sakamoto answers without delay, “Money.” When I ask him to clarify if he means that diving is a lucrative business, he is quick to correct. “It’s not lucrative, no. But there is instant compensation for every day you sell your catch.” The profit is more assured than for example farming, which requires a extended period of effort and investment before the possible yield of salable crops.
Ama of Yakataishi may dive as often as their schedule and ambition allow. A few minutes after one o’clock, the day’s divers trickle into a metal shanty at the edge of the boatyard. Three younger men join Sakamoto. At 25, Yutaka is the youngest of the group and has been diving for three years. Though the national trend reveals the ama population is aging, there is still a healthy span of generations represented in the Yakataishi cooperative.
Reminiscent of a boys’ clubhouse, the divers call the humble shanty their headquarters. It’s a warm refuge from the blustery day outside. Sakamoto busies himself repairing equipment while the others sit, idly gazing at the television or out the window.
Over the years, ama have allowed themselves certain equipment upgrades such as goggles and wetsuits. But in the early 1900s, after a brief stint using breathing devices, it became clear that with this type of equipment, divers could easily extirpate the ocean’s resources. The Japan Fisheries Cooperative, a national organization overseeing ama, quickly banned air-assisted diving. The ban remains in effect today. Sakamoto believes the reasoning is sound. “If you dive with oxygen tanks, there is no need to frequently resurface. You can uproot everything. But if you rely only on breath-holding, you are prevented from overharvesting.”
As two o’clock draws near, the four men gear up. Each diver dons a heavy belt averaging ten percent of his bodyweight to counteract the buoyancy of their suits. We gather in Sakamoto’s boat and push away from the dock. Beyond the protection of the harbor, the waves are big but Sakamoto motors through them easily. Each day the divers rotate among locations, never visiting the same patch of waters in succession. We turn west and travel parallel to the shore. We stop when we reach a small cove, protected by an outcropping of volcanic rock that shelters us from the worst of the wind and waves.
The men tether themselves to their catch-nets with long, plastic tubing. They ease over the side of the boat, grimacing at the contact with 50º F waters. Then, they swim away from the boat and disperse.
Twenty feet out, Sakamoto slips under water. I watch the waves break on the rocky shore behind the buoy supporting his net. “Hora!” he exclaims upon surfacing and starts swimming back to the boat. I see the fleshy, peach colored catch in his hand. He calls me to open the lid of a basin in the boat and with perfect aim, he slings in an octopus.
Swimming away again, he commences the slow work of plucking from the bottom of the sea. Taking a breath, he dives under, his flippers breaching before gliding below the surface. I, too, fill my lungs and wait. The divers drift with the current and often come up a distance from where they enter the water. I scan the horizon wondering where Sakamoto will emerge. In a single dive, he is able to gather two or three sazae. But the more valuable abalone are collected one by one as they cling tightly to rocks and must be pried with a steel bar.
Thirty seconds without breath feels interminably long, even as I sit still in the boat. Sakamoto has not yet appeared when I exhale. When he finally resurfaces, his inhalations are audible across the water. As I watch him freedive, I can’t help but compare his 38 years of diving against the abrupt history of the sea urchin industry in my home state of Maine.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Maine sea urchins were nothing more than an overpopulated pest, threatening kelp beds and stealing bait from lobster traps. But when Japanese buyers brokered the first urchin deals in 1986, an unregulated urchin harvest began. Fully geared divers harvested up to 1,000 pounds of sea urchin a day. In the mid-1990s, annual exports peaked at close to 40 million pounds after which catch rates began to plummet. Today, the Department of Maine Resources (DMR) struggles to regulate the industry toward a recovery goal of 30% of the original population. Even as recently as 2012, with a tightly regulated, blink-of-an-eye harvesting season, the DMR continues to recommend a 50% reduction in harvest. The urchin population remains depleted.
With rich mountain soil just a stone's throw from the sea, Minato's unique geography allows ama to combine diving with conventional fishing or farming to piece together a living.
A little before four o’clock, Sakamoto makes his way back to the boat, hauling himself first, then his catch, onto the deck. He has found mostly sazae with a few abalone mixed in. A handful of purple and red sea urchins poke their vibrant spines through the net.
“Do you come in when your net is full?” I ask, wondering how he manages to track time. Sakamoto laughs and exclaims, “It never gets full!” Despite the measures ama have taken to implement sustainable practices, Sakamoto has observed changes to their ecosystem. He guesses that pollution and environmental factors are the main causes. The presence of seaweed is a reliable indicator of the health of the ocean floor, but of this, Sakamoto has witnessed a slow and steady decline.
But there is another concern. Sakamoto’s tone grows quiet as he alludes to a more immediate explanation for the depleted oceanic resources. Though he and other registered divers adhere to ama regulations with the hope the waters will support their families in perpetuity, there are some who are not so farsighted. Affluence in Minato is particularly suspect. Rumors circulate that the nicer homes are paid for through poaching. “The poachers go out with air tanks and headlights at night. It’s a real problem,” he says.
Back at the dock, each diver drags his net onto the landing and begins organizing the day’s catch by size and kind. A merchant drives up and starts collecting and weighing. Though the market is volatile and short-term prices fluctuate, Sakamoto has seen little change in his overall profit to account for inflation. He concedes he could do better by taking his catch directly to market. But doing so would add complications. If he is unable to sell everything, the unsold catch would be difficult to keep fresh through the next day. The other concern is theft. Considering the risks, it is easier for Sakamoto to offload his harvest to a middleman.
The four men change out of their suits and reconvene at their headquarters. They light a freestanding propane heater and collapse onto well-worn couches and wooden benches. Sakamoto is quick to pour a cup of sake. Though it’s only 4:30 in the afternoon, he is wrapping up a day that began over twelve hours ago.
Sakamoto rises at 4:00 A.M. each morning. He spends long hours before noon out on the water, checking for catch in his fishing nets. Others in the group farm fields. With rich mountain soil just a stone’s throw from the sea, Minato’s unique geography allows ama to combine diving with conventional fishing or farming to piece together a living. The livelihood of the Yakataishi collective appears, for now and for the foreseeable future, tenable. The longstanding tradition of ama endures.