Ama (women of the sea) dive for a variety of game: awabi (abalone), sazae (top snails), ise-ebi (spiny lobster) and namako (sea cucumbers). Each of these prey items have specific seasons that regulate their take to sustain their populations for future harvest. Other animals may be taken as available (e.g. tako – octopus, finfish). Seaweeds are taken in late winter. In Goza Town, Shima City, namako season begins November 20 and extends to the end of the year. Once again, Machiyo Yamashita-san, a top Ama diver, invited us to observe her at work. A previous blog post about an Ama Festival introduced Yamashita-san.
Yamashita-san was also featured in the blog diving for ise-ebi (lobster).
As their name suggests, sea cucumbers resemble cucumbers in shape: cylindrical and warty (see Photo 1). They are relatives of sea stars (aka starfish, Phylum Echinodermata). Three types of namako have commercial value: akanamako, aonamako and kuronamako (red, blue and black sea cucumber, respectively). The first two types are eaten locally (in Japan) whereas black sea cucumbers are exported to China. Yamashita-san only collects reds and blues. They are relatively easy to handle: they do not swim away, nor are they spiny. However, they can be hard to find: hiding in rocks, crevices, at the base of walls, and covered in rubble (Photos 2-5).
Photo 1: Three types of namako (sea cucumbers). The four smaller ‘cukes’ in the upper right are akanamko (red sea cucumber); in the lower right corner is a single kuronamako (black sea cucumber), and on the lower left are three aonamako (blue sea cucumber; ‘greenish’ to a western eye). The ama in Goza collected reds and blues for local consumption.
We arrived in Goza November 30. Six divers had gone out that day: four women and two men. The women included Yamashita-san, her one-time apprentice Mitsuko-san, and two others (ages: late 40s to early 60s). They worked inside Ago Wan (Ago Bay) where the water was calm and cooler. It had been a good day. Yamashita-san, however, went after ise-ebi and other items for our dinner, rather than concentrating on namako. She served us a seafood feast at her Ama Goya* restaurant, and we prepared to dive the next morning (Photos 6-8).
Photo 6: Some of the dinner items served at Yamashita-san’s ama goya: kawahagi (filefish) deep fried (blue plate), kamasu (barracuda) dried/salted and grilled, surume ika (squid) grilled, batagai (swimming scallops) broiled in shell, and namako (red and blue sea cucumber) in a vinegar sauce.
Over dinner, Yamashita-san told us more about her background and some tales from the sea. Both her mother and grandmother were ama. She began diving at the age of 24 as an apprentice to five of the top divers in Goza (the ‘bubble’ era: 1970s-1980s). She recalled a story from this time. While sitting in the ama goya one day, a fruit vendor stopped by, and the top ama diver bought a variety of expensive fruit, with no thought to the cost. Other ama were unable to afford any of the fruit. At that time, top ama earned $1,000 or more per day, whereas other ama earned only $100. From that moment on, Yamashita-san devoted herself to becoming a top ama, and she quickly succeeded.
While many ama only dive for awabi and sazae, Yamashita-san continually challenges herself to find new prey and new techniques. She learned from a special ama how to spearfish and how to catch ise-ebi (spiny lobster); relatively few ama pursue these prey items. Also, she observes her prey to better understand and capture them. She told us how lobsters make noise when threatened, and that other lobsters respond to this sound and hide (see Video 1). One day she observed several lobsters in the open (away from the rocks) clinging to kelp. She quickly caught them, and then saw an octopus (tako) that had been hunting them. Based on this observation, she devised a new method. She first caught an octopus, tied a rope around it, and then placed it into a crevice full of lobsters. She hoped the octopus would chase the lobsters out of their cave and into her waiting hands. Unfortunately, the octopus tried to escape deep into the cave, entangling her rope in the rocks. It took 30 minutes to slowly get the rope back, and she was unable to catch any of the lobsters. She gave up on that technique; however, she did develop modified ‘lobster scissors’ to better extract them from rocks (see the ise-ebi post for pictures). As the evening went on, we heard stories of fish so big that she had to tuck them under her arm, or hop onto a neighboring boat to secure her catch (surprise! and thanks!). One halibut bled so much that a shark would not leave her alone, an unusual event (she landed the fish). We finally retired after 3 hours of food and conversation.
Yamashita-san demonstrates the sound made by ise-ebi (spiny lobster) when threatened. They rub their antenna against their carapace to create this sound. Other lobsters respond to this noise by taking cover.
During the night we heard the wind howling, and woke to white caps in the bay. We expected that ama would not go out in these conditions, and if they did, the water would be so murky that photography would be poor. However, Yamashita-san showed up around 7:30 a.m., driving along the shore, looking for a place to dive. She fired up the ama goya (the real hut) at 8 a.m.a and Mitsuko-san arrived soon after. None of the other ama went out that day, but Yamashita-san tries to dive nearly every day, and Mitsuko-san accepts the challenges of her mentor. Initially, they planned to dive in the bay, the worst location for photographs, but calmer for diving. Eventually, Yamashita-san decided to dive from the beach on the Pacific coast, where water would be relatively clear. My previous dives with her were always from a boat, and I was uncertain about a rough entry with a camera. I decided to free dive (without SCUBA) and bring my camera without flashes. If necessary, I could exit the water at any time without disturbing their work.
Before diving, ama gather around a fire, warming themselves and their suits. Inside the ama goya I was advised to face away from the fire to warm my back and lungs (Photo 9). At the same time, the heat would help open my sinuses, although the ama goya became quite smoky. We heated ourselves for several minutes until we were sweating. Yamashita-san claims she sweats throughout her dive because she is so active in her pursuit of prey, despite the water’s temperature (17-18oC; 63-65oF). Also, she wears a two-piece wetsuit and hood; in December she wore her 4mm wetsuit, whereas Mitsuko-san wore a 5 mm wetsuit. Before donning her suit, she prepared her mimisen (earplugs, see Photos 10a-10d)**. Finally, we put on our wetsuits and headed to the beach (Photo 11).
Photo 9: Warming up in the ama goya before diving (Yamashita-san on the right). The ama goya provides a place to warm up before and after dives. Ama also eat here, relax and socialize. The wood fire was fairly smoky, but the ama tolerated it along with the heat. Our wetsuits are warming at the same time.
Photo 11: Yamashita-san and other ama I have met use wetsuits with bare neoprene inside. This surface sticks to the skin, which prevents water flow and keeps the diver warmer. However, the same sticky property makes it hard to get on. Yamashita-san uses a talcum powder to slide into her suit.
The cove was around a rocky outcropping from our parking site (Photo 12). Yamashita-san chose to hike around this point and enter the water from the beach of the cove. However, the hike to the cove was steep and required use of a rough ‘bridge’ (Photo 13). Mitsuko-san chose to enter from the beach by the cars, and swim around the point. Both divers had to carry their gear with them on their backs, primarily a tampo (ring float) with net and an isonomi (tool to gather prey, Photos 14 & 15). Yamashita-san also carries a cell phone and watch, and ties her shoes onto her tampo before she enters the water (Photo 16). I followed Mitsuko-san as she entered from the beach (Photos 17-19). Once we reached the other cove, I realized we were diving at the base of the mountain, with the lighthouse and shrine to Daimyojin (Photo 20).
Photo 12: Near the dive site, looking for places to enter. Mitsuko (foreground) decided to enter at the beach by the cars (on her right) and swim around the rocks to the dive site. Yamashita-san (in the distance) decided to hike over the hill and enter directly at the cove.
The water was quite shallow: 1-4 meters deep (3-13’), and the surge not too rough. Ama dive in short bursts of approximately 30 seconds, followed by an equal time at the surface of forceful breathing that often includes whistling (‘phew’) or huffing. Surface dives begin with a tuck of the head and end with body vertical and their feet out of the water. They rapidly swim to the bottom in search of prey, using their isonomi to remove namako from their hiding places. They carry enough weight to help them get to depth, but they are still buoyant, and can passively float to the surface (see Photos 21-24).
Photo 21E: The water here was very shallow (2 m, 6-7’). Note: both 21c&d show Yamashita-san’s name on her fins: Yama (‘mountain’) with three vertical lines with line at base on the left, and Shita (‘under’) on the right.
After about 2.5 hours, we all swam back together to the beach by the cars (Photos 25a-e, 26). The namako were taken directly to the Fisherman’s Association on the waterfront, for sorting and sale. Both women had a good catch (Photos 27-29), and they kept some for their own dinner. Back at the ama goya we cleaned up, sat by the fire and ate some noodles (Photo 30). Afterward, Yamashita-san demonstrated how to clean namako, gave us a recipe for them with a vinegar sauce (below), and sent us home with 20 red and green sea cucumbers. They were surprisingly good, a crunchy, lightly pickled form of sashimi.
How to clean and prepare namako: (see Video 2 in Japanese)
- Slice them open lengthwise, cut out mouth parts, remove guts, and rinse
- Slice into small, ‘cucumber-chip’ sized pieces
- Prepare a sauce of rice vinegar (10 parts), sake (1 part), mirin (sweetened sake, 1 part)
- Bring the sauce to boil in a sauce pan
- Turn off the heat and add sliced namako
- Allow to cool, and serve (green onion garnish goes well with it!)
* Ama Goya are huts used by ama before and after dives. Ama warm themselves by a fire, eat lunch, rest and relax with their friends. A commercial form of ama goya serves as restaurants. They are run by ama and feature an open fire, similar to those used by divers. By comparison to ama ‘huts’, the restaurants are often very nice inside, with seating around an open fire with grill for seafood.
** Divers experience increased pressure around them as they dive (the deeper the dive, the greater the pressure). The added pressure on our eardrums (tympanic membranes) quickly becomes painful and can rupture these thin tissues. Western divers do not use earplugs; instead, they equalize the pressure from the inside, usually by squeezing the nose and gently blowing out, forcing air into their Eustachian tubes and up against the inner side of their eardrum. Alternatively, the use of earplugs can prevent the outside pressure from reaching the eardrum. Potential problems exist if the pressure forces the earplug against the eardrum or the earplug fails. Medical studies of ama suggest they have increased loss of hearing and a greater rate of tinnitus.