Reminiscent of a boys' clubhouse, the divers call the humble shanty their headquarters. It's a warm refuge from the blustery day outside. Sakamoto busies himself repairing equipment while the others sit, idly gazing at the television or out the window.
Over the years, ama have allowed themselves certain equipment upgrades such as goggles and wetsuits. But in the early 1900s, after a brief stint using breathing devices, it became clear that with this type of equipment, divers could easily extirpate the ocean's resources. The Japan Fisheries Cooperative, a national organization overseeing ama, quickly banned air-assisted diving. The ban remains in effect today. Sakamoto believes the reasoning is sound. "If you dive with oxygen tanks, there is no need to frequently resurface. You can uproot everything. But if you rely only on breath-holding, you are prevented from overharvesting."
As two o'clock draws near, the four men gear up. Each diver dons a heavy belt averaging ten percent of his bodyweight to counteract the buoyancy of their suits. We gather in Sakamoto's boat and push away from the dock. Beyond the protection of the harbor, the waves are big but Sakamoto motors through them easily. Each day the divers rotate among locations, never visiting the same patch of waters in succession. We turn west and travel parallel to the shore. We stop when we reach a small cove, protected by an outcropping of volcanic rock that shelters us from the worst of the wind and waves.
The men tether themselves to their catch-nets with long, plastic tubing. They ease over the side of the boat, grimacing at the contact with 50º F waters. Then, they swim away from the boat and disperse.
Twenty feet out, Sakamoto slips under water. I watch the waves break on the rocky shore behind the buoy supporting his net. "Hora!" he exclaims upon surfacing and starts swimming back to the boat. I see the fleshy, peach colored catch in his hand. He calls me to open the lid of a basin in the boat and with perfect aim, he slings in an octopus.
Swimming away again, he commences the slow work of plucking from the bottom of the sea. Taking a breath, he dives under, his flippers breaching before gliding below the surface. I, too, fill my lungs and wait. The divers drift with the current and often come up a distance from where they enter the water. I scan the horizon wondering where Sakamoto will emerge. In a single dive, he is able to gather two or three sazae. But the more valuable abalone are collected one by one as they cling tightly to rocks and must be pried with a steel bar.