Mieko Kitai takes a huge gulp of air as she surfaces from the clear, blue waters of Japan’s Pacific coast with a large abalone in her hand.

Now in her 70s, the dive - with nothing more than a mask - does not get any easier and the pickings get slimmer with every passing year.

But she and her fellow divers or “ama” - which roughly translates to “sea woman” - reap the fruits of the sea in a way that has been practised in parts of Japan for thousands of years.

“Finally, I got one,” she says as she climbs aboard the boat and pulls the mask off her weather-beaten face.

Kitai is one of a dozen free divers who gathered on a recent sunny day in Shima, Mie prefecture, in western Japan.

They chatter loudly from excitement and necessity - some have suffered hearing loss because of the high pressures experienced at depth - as they rub their masks with a kind of slimy algae to prevent fogging. Some join hands and utter a Shinto prayer for those they have lost, including an 80-year-old who died last year on a dive. “Her heart gave out,” said one of them. Each has a weight belt around their waist to give them a little help when they jump overboard into water up to 20 metres deep. Some are gone as long as a minute before they surface again with a shellfish or an urchin.

“Today, the fishing was better than I thought it would be,” said Kitai as she dropped an octopus and several turban shells, a prized shellfish delicacy, into her catch net.