Is freediving an activity that suits better females? A tribute to Ama

Off the shores of Korea and southern Japan, the ocean bottom is rich in shellfish and edible seaweeds. For at least 1,500 years these crops have been harvested by divers, mostly women, who support their families by daily foraging on the sea bottom. Using no special equipment other than goggles (or glass face masks), these breath-holding divers have become famous the world over for their performances. The divers are called Ama.

The Japanese Ama specialized in freediving in the cold sea for collecting foods and pearls. In ancient times, women were thought to be able to hold breath longer and better suited to diving in the cold water as they possess an extra layer of fat for insulation. The history of Ama dates back almost 2000 years ago.  

For those who choose this occupation, diving was a lifelong profession; they begin to work in shallow water at the age of 11 or 12 and sometimes continue to 65. Childbearing does not interrupt their work; a pregnant diving woman may work up to the day of delivery and nurse her baby afterward between driving shifts.

During their activities they swam with their faces submerged, scanning the bottom. When a promising area is located, they abandon the floats and dive 5-7m, returning to the surface in 20-40 sec. After approximately 30 sec of rest, the dive is repeated. In villages, this operation is a community affair and Ama prefers to dive into groups. They were dressed in light cotton suits.

Up to the 17th century, the Ama of Korea included men as well as women; now they are all women. As we shall see, the female is better suited to this work than the male. Physiologists have found considerable interest in studying the capacities and physiological reactions of the Ama, who are probably the most skillful natural divers in the world. What accounts for their remarkable adaptation to the aquatic environment, training or heredity or a combination of both? How do they compare with their non-diving compatriots?

A scientific paper published in 1963 reported an investigation performed in 1960 about the diving pattern, lung volumes and alveolar gas of the Korean diving woman. At that time about 4000 people lived in the village of Keum Nyung and 1200 women were classified as potential Ama.

Recently, in 2016, some colleagues from the University of Texas and several research institutes in Japan published a workaround the hypothesis assuming that it is possible that Ama (in that case the Japanese counterparts) may have adapted similar arterial structure and function to those seen in diving mammals as an explanation of the capability to perform repeated free dives through their lives. In a typical day, Mama performs around 100-150 free dives holding the breath for up to 2 min at a time.

In the diving conditions, the organism has to adapt to augment the arterial compliance function. Indeed diving mammals, such as seals and whales, have adopted the arterial structure such that the ascending aorta is about three to four times larger than the descending aorta. This structural adaptation not only enhances the compliance function of the aorta but also serves to maintain arterial flow. Because Ama performs repeated free dives and experienced diving-induced bradycardia throughout their lives, it is possible to hypothesize that they may have adapted similar arterial structure and function.

Currently, the population of Japanese pearl divers is on the verge of extinction as few young women come into this profession. Unless we revive this fascinating profession, the study made by Hirofumi Tanaka in 2016 could be potentially the last large-scale physiological investigation of the arterial health of the Japanese free divers. We’ll see.

Last year, the famous French free diver and cinematographer, Julie Gautier, released on International Women’s Day a beautiful film in honor of Ama. As she described:

“Ama is a silent film. It tells a story everyone can interpret in their own way, based on their own experience. There is no imposition, only suggestions. I wanted to share my biggest pain in this life with this film. For this is not too crude, I covered it with grace. To make it not too heavy, I plunged it into the water. I dedicate this film to all the women of the world.”

Julie Gautier redefines the rules of the underwater world, immersing us into an unknown universe of endless shades of blue. Her love for the ocean and the innate use of poetry has created fascinating short films. Filmed in a deep pool in Venice, Italy, the captivating underwater dance is titled after the Japanese word for “woman of the sea.”

Over the course of about 6 minutes, we can see Gautier holding her breath and performing an incredible routine unlike anything else. She elegantly glides through the crystal-clear, calm water like a ballerina in slow motion. With each controlled movement, her silk-like hair and the fabric of her dress flow and “dance” with her.

Shane Gould, and Olympic champion swimmer is also using her camera to communicate what she has learned from a lifetime of immersion. She conveys a palpable understanding of what it means for the human body to be in the water, to be compelled by it and through it.

One of the enduring attractions for humans is the way the water feels against the body. For most people, being in the water is an extremely pleasant sensation. Floating, supported by water’s buoyancy is particularly delightful. Being immersed in the element of water is a physical experience unmatched in our normal land-based life where gravity makes us heavy as it pulls us downwards. As she said: “Swimming as free diving is a unique art form. Painters need a canvas. Dancers need a floor. Writers need paper. And not one of their mediums can work actively with the artist except water.”

Watching a masterful body moving with easy grace through water is to see a beautiful symbiosis of human beings and water. It is seen as art in action. And it is the feeling of being immersed within the medium of water that stimulates visual or written artists to communicate and interpret beauty, exhilaration, fear, or delight of the experience.

To understand the images, you need to look carefully at the details of the composition – for instance, at the angle of the arms, the sinusoidal movement of the stroke, the undulation of the fins, the direction of the trails of bubbles. This observation conveys a better understanding of how to move through the water without creating too much drag. To view the films or the photographs as art, a certain level of mental and emotional engagement with them is needed to appreciate the images and allow the feelings (both in and out of water) to be explored imaginatively.

After the release of her film AMA in March 2018, the French freediver and dancer tells the story of the shooting and her artistic performance that has been around the web. Last October, Julie Gautier launched a new video a year and a half after. She confides on the reasons that led her to perform this choreography completely underwater. ” AMA is a very personal project in which I wanted to put emotion, a test and a story, ” says Julie Gauthier who wanted her film to be ” a sharing of emotions “. It is for this reason that she used the dance and she did not want to put words to impregnate his video of the maximum of modesty possible.

She explains that the constraints of the realization forced it to turn in swimming pool and not in open water, ” to have a controlled medium ” I wanted to forget the liquid element and that it seems that I fly”

In the 1940s 6000 Ama were reported active along the coasts of Japan while today Ama practice at numbers more along the scale of 60 or 70 divers in a generation. Maybe, AMA film inspires a new cohort of female free divers all over the world to practice this amazing sport.

References:

S. K. Hong et al. (1963), Diving pattern, lung volumes, and alveolar gas of the Korean diving woman (Ama), Journal of Applied Physiology, May, pp 457-465

S. K. Hong et al. (1967), The Diving Women of Korea and Japan, Scientific American, Vol. 216, No. 5, pp. 34-43

H. Tanaka et al. (2016), Arterial stiffness of lifelong Japanese female pearl divers, Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 310: R975–R978S.

Gould (2007), Appreciating swimming: beauty and instruction with underwater swimmer photographs, Visual Communication, V6-2: pp 170-179

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