Devyn Bisson’s Documentary Project Explores the Ama-San Japanese Free-Divers

Bisson at work in Japan. Photo of a displayed image by Matt Coker

To say the subject of Devyn Bisson’s sophomore project as a filmmaker is unexpected would be an understatement. While in Japan, the final stop on a tour on which the Huntington Beach resident screened her directing and producing debut, The Wave I Ride, a 2015 bio-documentary on big-wave surfer Paige Alms, she received an article on the “Ama-San.” Roughly translating to “women of the sea,” Ama-San refers to female Japanese free-divers who fetch abalone for a living, primarily selling their catch from the Shima Peninsula at local markets. Some are now in their 80s, a reflection of a 2,000-year-old tradition that is dying; Ama-San numbers have diminished one-sixth in the past 60 years. 

An Ama-San beach scene. Photo of a displayed image by Matt Coker
Ama-San inspired this artistic take on a wetsuit. Photo by Matt Coker

Needless to say, Bisson was blown away by what she learned. “I’ve grown up around the ocean and would consider myself somewhat of an elite-ocean-goer, and I would not be able to do what they do,” she has said. “I don’t have the breathing experience and techniques that they do. It’s not just free-diving; they’re in a sense hunting, and their knowledge has been passed on to them from their mothers and their mothers’ mothers and so on.”

Old fins are not discarded. This one’s sewn up in back. Photo by Matt Coker
The camera, book and other materials used in the making of the film. Photo by Matt Coker

On June 27, action-sports brand Hurley’s headquarters in Costa Mesa hosted “Blueprint,” an exhibit of Ama-San gear, photos and collages, and decorated wetsuits inspired by the free-divers. There was also live music, alcohol-loaded kombucha from JuneShine and small bites from Bear Flag Fish Co. that included bits of the type of seafood the Ama-San gather. The goal was to raise awareness of the free-divers as well as Bisson’s documentary project, which had her moving to Japan for three months. Follow her film’s progress at

Actual nets and wetsuit used to capture abalone. Photo by Matt Coker

OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.

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