The female diving culture of Ise-shima dates back to the earliest annals of Japanese history. Known as ama, the women free-dive for shellfish, such as oysters and abalone, as well as harvesting seaweed. On average they’ll spend three to four hours a day in the water, going down to a depth of 10–15m without any breathing apparatus, and some are still diving past the age of 70. Ama usually dive year-round either in small groups, or from boats skippered by their husbands. The reason for women-only divers is that they can hold their breath longer than men and are blessed with an extra layer of insulating fat, which protects them from the freezing waters.

Traditionally, ama harvested seafood in Ise Bay and transported it to Ise-jingū, where they presented their catch as an offering. They played a major role in the development of the cultured pearl industry in the nineteenth century, helping to gather the akoya pearl oysters. Today, there are approximately 1300 ama in the Toba area; they still wear the customary white outfits, which apparently scare off sharks, and which are also marked with special protective star-shaped charms to ward off bad luck.

 

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