Saturday, 4 February 2012

Ama and Haenyo divers and Mermaids

There were many mermaid stories and sightings in the past but not so many about mermen, why is this? It might because as with the Haenyo and Ama divers in Korea and Japan, female divers far outnumber male ones. What’s the reason for this? The waters around Korea and Japan are cold and women’s bodies are better suited to swim in cold water than male bodies. The common explanation for this, is that women have a higher percentage of subcutaneous fat than men, which insulates them from the cold water. In much the same way, blubber also insulates dolphins, seals and whales. Some people dispute this and point out that an overweight man would have as much body fat as an average woman and this would insulate them to the same degree. Also men are able to train their bodies to swim in cold water in the same way women can. Dr Jolie Bookspan, an authority on the subject, has pointed out another reason why men have problems in cold water and that is because of a medical condition she calls, ‘Frostbite shorts’.
Women have internal sex organs, men have external sex organs. Men produce their sperm in the testicles. Sperm is sensitive to temperature and will die if it gets too warm or too cold. So a man swimming in cold water will kill the sperm in his testicles. Normally, this is not a problem because men are producing new sperm all the time, but, if the man is a professional breath-holding diver and is immersed in cold water every day, then he will be continuously killing his sperm and will be unlikely to father children. Another problem for men, is that if they spend too long in very cold water they can suffer frostbite on their penis, which is something no man would want to experience.

Dr Bookspan working as a Ama diver

Dr Bookspan spent time working as an Ama diver to study the effects of swimming in cold water on her own body and the bodies of Ama divers. The divers she studied were all wearing cotton costumes. She made the point that these costumes were very uncomfortable when wet and would make the Ama divers feel much colder when out of the water than if they wore nothing. A naked body will soon dry through its own body heat, but wet clothing will keep the body wet, take far longer to dry and will feel very cold in the slightest wind.
In the past the Ama divers wore nothing, however after the Second World War, with the increase in tourism, too many outsiders began to comment on their nakedness, Ama divers were forced to do a cover-up and adopted cotton costumes. Dr Boodspan says, -
Diving clothes varied by geographic area, with some divers wearing only a rope belt or loincloth. No fins were used to help swimming. Later when wet suits were developed, only male divers wore them. Women were prohibited protective suits by their cooperatives, since they were considered more cold tolerant to begin with, and the advantage of the suit would "accelerate over-harvesting" Later, the work became pretty much exclusive to women.”
She also explains that wet-suits are not as large a benefit for women as they are for men, in cold water. This is because men have a higher skin temperature than women and therefore more heat is radiated away from a man’s body in cold water, than from a woman’s. So the insulating qualities of a wetsuit are less use to women.
So if this is the reason why few men are breath holding divers in Japan and Korea, then was it also true for Mermaids in Europe? After all the water is not only cold in places like France and England where we have Mermaid sightings, but also in Ireland, Scotland, the Orkney, Shetland and Faroe islands, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries and Russia. All these places have mermaid stories and sightings. So how could breath-holding divers work in the very cold waters of places like Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia? To understand this, we have to look at the experiences of modern open water swimmers.

In 1987 open water swimmer Lynne Cox swam the Bering Straits from the Alaskan island of Little Diomede to the Soviet Union island of Big Diomede without a wet-suit. She swam for two hours in Arctic waters. Then In 2002 she became the first person to swim over a mile in the waters of Antarctica spending 25 minutes in the water, also without a wet-suit.
So how was she able to accomplish these feats when a normal person would quickly freeze to death? It seems that open water swimmer not only train themselves to swim for long distances but also train their bodies to withstand very cold water. This is commonplace with swimmers who have swam the English Channel. Even in these relatively temperate waters a normal person can freeze to death, if they haven’t conditioned their bodies to withstand the cold. Lynne Cox was a successful Channel swimmer early on in her career. In 1972 at the age of 15 she swam the English Channel and shattered the men's and women's world records with a time of 9 hours and 57 minutes. The next year she swam the Channel a second time and again broke the record.
In 1976 Lynne Cox became, officially, the first person to swim across the Strait of Magellan. It’s very likely that she wasn’t the first person to do this, because in the area there were once female breath-holding divers. The Strait of Magellan goes through the Tierra del Fuego islands in the most southerly part of South America. The original inhabitants were the Ona and Yamana tribes. The Ona lived inland but the Yamana lived on the coast and as with the Ama and Haenyo the women were breath-holding divers. Diving in waters even colder than that of Korea and Japan they foraged for shellfish and seaweed. It could be some unknown Yamana woman was who the first person to swim across the Strait of Magellan.

Bounty hunters killing the Yamana and Ona people.

Because the land was useless for anything, these tribes were mostly left alone until 1883 when gold was discovered there. The gold soon ran out but the ex-miners took up sheep farming and claimed all the land as their own. Unfortunately some of the Ona men began to kill the sheep for food and clothing, so the sheep farmers paid bounty hunters to exterminate the tribes, making no distinction between the Ona and Yamana. (The official version is that they were wiped out by diseases like measles and smallpox). Later on the few survivors of this genocide were saved by missionaries, but in spite of their efforts, no full blooded Yamana now exist.

Drawing of Tasmanian Breath divers

The same thing happened to the Tasmanian when the first white settlers arrived there at the beginning of the 19th century. They also found that the women were breath-holding divers. Again, they were regarded as nuisance and again bounty hunters were used to wipe them out. One of the justifications for this genocide, was that the Yamana and Tasmanian Aborigine were very primitive. They didn’t wear clothing despite living in a cold climate. But this is similar to what modern open water swimmers also do. They wear as few clothes as decently possible in cold weather, to condition their bodies to withstand low temperatures. So the Yamana and Tasmanian Aborigine were probably doing the same acclimatising their bodies to the cold weather so they could swim in cold water. The Haenyo and Ama divers have likewise been accused of being primitive because they once dived naked, another reason why they now wear cotton costumes and wet-suits.
There have been reports of breath-holding divers all over the world. In South East Asia reports come from places like Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia and the Philippines of the Sea Gypsies or Sea People who live in boats or huts on stilts in shallow water. The Polynesians and Melanesians of the South Pacific were also breath-holding divers and were used as pearl divers in the 19th century.

Giant Statue of Mermaid on Kollam Beach, India

Up until recently these were breath-holding divers in India. In Kerala on Kollam beach, there is a giant statue of a mermaid that is far larger than the famous little mermaid statue in Copenhagen Harbour.
There were breath-holding divers in both North and South America. We only know about them from large shell mounds the size of hills, which were created by millions of shellfish being collected by breath holding divers.

Large Shell mound before it was bulldozed in the 1920s

Shell mounds like this have been discovered in South Africa, Northern Europe and on the Mediterranean coast. It seems that the shell mounds on the Mediterranean sea coast were created by the famous Phoenicians who were part of the Sea People.
So this is the reason why we mostly have stories of mermaid and not mermen, because women can endure cold water much better than men. In our next video we will explain why in so many stories of mermaids in Europe, they have fish tails.


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