Everyone in Japan knows them as »Ama-San,« a title that conveys a great deal of affection and admiration – and yet, even in the big cities, hardly anyone is aware of what these courageous and independent women of the seas are actually capable of. At an average age of 60, they make their living by hunting abalone, a delicacy prized particularly in East Asia. The ama look like mature mermaids who, instead of enjoying their golden years in leisure, continue to dive regularly as far as 20 meters down into the depths. Since time immemorial, the image of man as hunter has been the epitome of masculinity. Which makes it all the more amusing that, based on the experience that men become chilled in the water faster, the hunt for abalone has traditionally been a woman's domain in Japan.
A type of edible sea-snail, abalone, often found 20ft-40ft below the surface, are sought-after delicacies in the Far East – all the more so since the tsunami that hit Japan’s coast in March 2011, washing away more than 90 per cent of the young of the species in the waters of Miyagi Prefecture in the north-east. The disaster, it is feared, could affect the catch in the heavily harvested area for a decade.
The youngest ama Poppe met was 43, and she was told the tradition could die out in 20 years’ time – but there is hope. “I heard of another city where there are four or five young ama training – though this was special: it even made the news.”