National Geographic : 1971 Jul
Ama, Sea Nymphs of THEY ARE ALL DRIPPING and newly risen from the sea. One wrings her skirt while a townswoman bargains with her for a shellfish; another suckles her small son as she combs her lustrous black hair; two watch a shoal of small fish playing in the water. Thus Utamaro, one of Japan's greatest portrayers of women, in a famous triptych (below) gave immortality to the ama, Japan's diving women of the sea. More than any other nation in the world, Japan, crowded on mountainous islands with little arable land, looks to the sea for sus tenance. From earliest times artists and poets have celebrated the ama, most curious of Japan's fisherfolk. The ama dive for food-shellfish and edible seaweeds-never for pearls. Some of the things they have been doing for 2,000 years (a venerated Japanese work tells of ama diving before the time of Christ) appear to go against the most basic rules of modern diving. Ama plunge without breathing appa ratus of any kind to depths as great as 75 feet many times a day. Now they have begun to attract the attention of scientists as well as of poets and painters. Until the past few years, almost nothing was known of what happens within the body of a human who repeatedly dives deep, in cold water, while holding his lungs full of surface air. As an overcrowded planet begins to turn to the sea for more food, and even more living space, we need the answers to many such questions about man in the sea. For years the submerged world has held me in thrall, and in late summer I went to Japan to plunge with the ama.