Points of view

Mermaids exist

01.03.2019 | By MICOL PIOVOSI

People have always been fascinated by myths and tales of the sea. Among the most celebrated creatures in poetry and literature, one has particularly struck the humankind’s imagination over the centuries: mermaids, the intriguing fish-tailed women. Deadly enchanters leading men to perdition, to some; kind-hearted singers to others. Their existence is limited to the realm of fantasy, but there are women in our world that do remind of this epic creature more than you would think.

 

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It’s the Amas, from the Japanese “sea women”, divers that explore the sea depths looking for pearls, abalones, seaweed and shellfish. Regular women with no scales nor hypnotic singing skills, but with an ability that would really deserve to be celebrated over the centuries: for three thousand years, Amas have been diving with no equipment, relying on nothing but the strength of their lungs. In the past, they used to dive naked or wearing a simple loincloth. Which sounds quite surprising, especially if you think of the Japanese women of yore, or at least how we’ve been picturing them: like delicate, disciplined tea maids. Yet the Amas’ tradition has been going on for centuries in Mie prefecture, where men are no fearless explorers, but mere boat drivers that take the vessel to the perfect spots for seabed hunting.

Each Ama dives every day, up to 30 meters deep. Their apnea time can last as long as 2 minutes, repeated even 60 times per session. But what really impresses is not just the duration and toughness of their immersions; it’s their extreme working conditions, that include very low temperatures and heavy underwater pressure. Except for the fact that Amas now do wear diving suits, the practice hasn’t changed at all through the centuries: they still use no sort of equipment for their utterly unique job.

 

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However, calling it a “job” would be an understatement. Being an Ama is very much a matter of lifestyle and identity. To achieve such impressive expertise, in fact, Amas start their training as early as 12 to 13 years old, then keep exploring the sea depths until 80 or even more. But this stunning tradition is now on the wane, due to the increase of Australian abalone importation and sea pollution, which has reduced the species presence by half in Mie’s marine area.

 

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Despite the encouraging targeted regulation, the Amas’ profession is still facing a steady loss in popularity among girls, thus leaving the Ama community as comprised of middle-ages and elderly women only. Amas have been shrinking in number since the 1940s, with once 600, now only 100 divers per generation.

 

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Even if one day they will be gone like sea foam against a cliff, Amas will live on forever as an epitome of discipline, bravery and strength. A precious feminine symbol, a secret treasured like a pearl in the depths of history.