Free in the Sea: Ai Futaki Makes Her Niche
Story & photos by Tim Rock
Growing up on the western coast of Japan, Ai Futaki loved the sea. Her neighbors, the Ama diving women famous for their pearl gathering skills, may have influenced her. She watched these women, from teens to grandmothers, enter the sea, and now her life has been in, on and below the sea for nearly two decades.
Ai Futaki floats on the surface of the Philippine Sea on the western side of Yap in Micronesia. She never would have imagined she would end up in this place. Below her there are many circling sharks; gray reef sharks, black tip sharks and white tip sharks. They are 17 meters down, moving back and forth along the deep drop off of the outer reef.
The dive boat is nearby. Conventional wisdom dictates it would be prudent to get in that boat. But Ai checks her video camera, puts her head down and starts to slowly and deliberately to sink below the surface, kicking slowly and deliberately down to the pack of sharks.
Ai was born in western Kanazawa, near the Japan Sea, yet she is really a citizen of the world. She has worked in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, studied in Cuba and attended film school in Los Angeles, honed her video skills in Thailand and annually travels the world competing with and recording the world’s top free divers.
She is a free diving record holder herself. In 2009, she broke the Asian female record (swimming to 55 meters) in the Constant Weight No Fins category in a deep Mexican cenote.
As you read this, she has just finished a four-month stay in Japan training for a very special discipline no woman has ever attempted. It involves swimming down through a Mexican cenote and then going vertical through a cave. She had to hike into the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, carry tons of heavy safety equipment to get to a magical place of light and water.
It was here, on Jan. 7, 2011, she did something done by no other, and setting two Guinness records. It was awarded the longest distance in a cave with fins with only one breath, swimming an amazing 100 meters.
She is the first woman in the world to do this and, without fins, she recorded an even more amazing distance of 90 meters, becoming the first human to do this for a Guinness record of Longest Distance in a Cave.
"Ama" literally means "sea woman" in Japanese. When you spell “ama,” you use two kanji characters, “sea” and “woman.'” In Japan, they are more properly called Ama-san, and Ai-san is certainly true to those roots.
The Sea Women have breath-hold dived in Japan’s chilly waters (and did so mostly naked until the 1960s) for thousands of years harvesting shellfish, seaweed and other food. They were the major providers for their villages. At one time, the Ama-san were the world's largest fleet of commercial divers.
Now there are few left. The youngest are in their 50s. The oldest working divers are now 70 and 80 years old and even older. The daughters move to the cities, not wanting to train in the cold waters with their mothers to become Ama-san. Soon there may be no more.
Like the Ama, Ai Futaki is a rare breed. For sure, she is a Sea Woman. She is attempting to carve out a niche for herself in this world that no woman has ever tried. In fact, it is really a niche within a niche within a niche.
There aren’t many people in the world doing what she is doing. That is, using scuba diving knowledge of the coral reef, videography skills and free diving training. She is doing underwater nature and action photography in a special way. Toss in some modeling stints, and you have a very versatile woman of the sea.
“By doing this without help of any air supply, and only one breath in a cenote which connects to our Mother Ocean, I would like to give a message of how important is the ocean and water,” she says.
In Yap I watch, as she descends toward the sharks and to me. Slowly she sinks through the blue, calm and collected and looking around the deep drop-off, along the reef and into the blue. Leveling out at 20 meters, she hovers and floats in the blue and films as the sharks go by. She is as curious about them as they are about her. Neither shows signs of fear or aggression.
One minute goes by, then another. She moves silently along the reef, gliding into place to get that perfect shot. After perhaps three minutes, she puts her hands above her head and, with a fluid dolphin kick, she gracefully heads back to the surface for a breath. It is an amazing and special way to see the ocean.
Obviously, Ai Futaki doesn’t shy away from a challenge. In fact, she actually creates challenging situations for herself. Ever since she was introduced to the world of scuba diving, she has taken on one challenge after the next. Since discovering scuba in Honduras in 2003, she has continued to move through the industry.
Because she wants to do more than work in the tourism industry, a friend suggested she attend a free diving competition in Thailand in 2007. She learned the basics and eventually became a certified free diving instructor. She also competed and then started filming competitions for television stations around the world.
But the connection to the reef, the ocean and its creatures is missing in the focused world of free diving competition. So she is hoping her skills and experiences can gel into a new tack in her life.
“Now I am clearer that I like free diving. I want to do it all my life. But my way of free diving is not just going to my limit… to go deep, deep, deep. Now I want to show the beauty.”
Still, what she does even when not going for a record takes constant training. How else can one swim for so many minutes under the ocean like a turtle? She closely watches her diet, doesn’t drink alcohol and tries to swim, preferably in the sea, whenever possible.
When she dives, her first few immersions are down to 10 or 15 meters but, as the day goes on, her endurance and ability to dive deep increases. Getting down to depths of 30 meters and staying to shoot is not a problem.
“I think it’s like any sport, the warm-up before. It allows me to stay longer,” Ai observes. Moving silently along the reef, she can stay at various depths up to four minutes. It is this style she says helps her get the kind of footage bubble breathing scuba divers can’t get.
“When I go down, the fish go away. But then I stay down, and they come back and I can shoot,” she explains.
She is not confined by the limitations breathing compressed air underwater places on divers.
“I feel more natural in the water. I can go wherever I want, which I can’t do with scuba diving. I can film more action going up and down. I can be doing the movement with the fish,” she says with a knowing sparkle in her eyes.
The Micronesia reef shark diving was a new experience for her in 2010. The first week of 2011 brought two world records. What is next?
She hopes to entertain, educate and also make some contributions to conservation. The world plague of shark fining particularly disturbs her. Shark populations worldwide are now considered dangerously at risk due to the fact sharks are caught for their fins only; their finless bodies tossed back into the sea.
“If they just use the most valuable (shark body parts) first, then it’s just for the money. It’s not fair.”
She has filmed local spear fishermen in Guam, shown the reefs of wild Komodo and cavorted with the sharks of Yap and Palau in Micronesia. All just using breath-hold techniques.
She returned to her homeland last year as well and joined her countrywomen. She grabbed her camera and, with awe and admiration, recorded the Sea Women as the Ama-san harvested marine life not far from her parents’ home in Kanazawa. It was a great privilege, she felt.
She will continue to make films about the sea.
“It’s a way of showing people underwater,” she says of her life’s work. “I want to make people happy.”