The Ama, and Whether Mermaids Are Fat

Warning: this post be may not safe for work, as there are topless photos near the end.

The other day, I came across a post on Tumblr that argued that mermaids should be fat.

hang on a minute…

shouldn’t all mermaids be fat?

mermaids are probably mammals, because of their visible breast tissue and horizontal tail fins.

aquatic mammals need to have developed a thick layer of subcutaneous fat in order to survive in water.  even in a hot climate, swimming in water the whole time would require fatty insultation.

so…  chubby mermaids.  yeah.

The Mermaid by John William WaterhouseIt actually got me curious.  Would mermaids be “fat” by our standards?  In a way, it goes back to my earlier post about Evolving the Monster, and how, if that’s your way of thinking about fantastical creatures, nothing makes sense, because you’re assuming that mermaids, and other creatures, follow all the rules of biology except arguably the greatest, which is evolution.

It took whales approximately twelve million years to become fully aquatic, which mermaids are.  If we assume that mermaids only recently became fully aquatic, then that implies that mermaids are as distant from humans as we are from orangutans.  Yet despite us evolving in extremely different environments, that is, the ocean versus African grassland, we still display remarkable convergent evolution, and mermaids exhibit oddly limited evolutionary adaptations, such as a tail designed for underwater movement, yet an upper body with absolutely no visibly useful adaptations, such as fins, increased lung capacity, or a blowhole.  But let’s ignore all that.

Let’s assume that mermaids, as commonly depicted, could potentially evolve, or, barring that, could be created in a way that still requires them to follow the laws of physics and biology.  Would they need to be fat?

To attempt to discover this, I first looked at other marine mammals.  Are they fat, in human terms?

DolphinFirst I looked at dolphins, as, when I think of mermaids, dolphins are the first marine mammals with which I associate them.  How do they compare?  Well, actually, dolphins are less fatty than average human females.  An athletic female is about 14-20% fat, an average female is about 25-31% fat, and an obese female is 32%+ fat.  Dolphins, meanwhile, are only about 18-20% fat, which would make them pretty svelte.

Whales are pretty similar, as well, although there’s wide variation.  Of the nine species I found data for, all but one, the right whale, has a fat content that would make them average were they human females.  Minke whales have as little as 15% body fat, while right whales have 43%.  In the middle we can find blue whales, at 27%, fin whales, at about 21%, and sperm whales, at 31 or 32%, depending on location.

ManateeWell, perhaps dolphins and whales aren’t the best examples.  Manatees and dugongs are usually considered to be the inspiration for many mermaid sightings, and they look pretty fat, don’t they?

Surprisingly, manatees have very little fat, instead being highly muscular with a large digestive tract.  They have so little fat that cold water can kill them off by the hundreds, as occurred in Florida in 2010, or to put it another way, in a single year, between about 4% and 9% of all Floridian manatees died from cold weather.  They could probably benefit from more fat, to be entirely honest, but because they live in warm water, they usually have little need for it.

WalrusSomeone else suggested that I look at seals and sea lions.  Sea lions measured by the researcher tended to hover between 10% and 20% body fat, depending on the season, according to this thesis, while wild shot animals tend to be between 5% and 17% body fat.  Lactating antarctic fur seals are about 16% fat, and when they give birth, they’re around 22% fat.  Only phocid seals are any fattier than typical humans, at up to 50% body fat, while walruses are around 33% to 40% fat, so at least some marine mammals are much fattier than human females, but walruses tend to live in cold climates, and I’ve never seen a depiction of a mermaid that could be mistaken for a walrus.

So then, if we look at other marine mammals, it’s clear that a realistic mermaid could survive quite well without any more, and indeed, with less, fat than her legged counterpart.  In certain climates, she might require additional fat to stay warm, but it’s certainly not a necessity for most of the world’s oceans, let alone the Caribbean and Mediterranean with which I associate most mermaids.

From here, we could get into arguments about physiology and efficiency.  Would the inefficient design of a mermaid require more fat to retain heat?  Would the additional muscle required to move a bulky mermaid through the ocean rather than a dolphin eliminate the need for more fat, since their muscles would help keep them warm?  How deep do mermaids need to dive?  Their eyes appear to be designed for bright light, so it’s unlikely they go too deep.  Without an actual mermaid in mind to study, though, it’s much harder to answer these questions, and I think that it’s been demonstrated pretty conclusively that mermaids do not require fatty insulation above that of an average human female.

But lastly, let’s look at one last mammal that spends quite a time in water: the Ama, a term meaning “women of the sea.”  Groups of Ama live sporadically on the coasts of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku, although the best known are on Hekura Jima.  They’re probably best known for their primary source of income: diving.

Ama by Iwase Yoshiyuki 1The Ama women dive for abalone, urchins, and another marine life, although abalone is by far the most common.  Traditionally, they wore only a loincloth, although nowadays they tend to wear wetsuits.  Nevertheless, their traditional near-nudity and unusual practices have captivated the Japanese and foreigners for centuries.

The women dive, because, due to fat distribution, women can spend more time in cold water than men can.  Typically, men repair nets, row boats, and keep house, while the women dive and thereby bring in income.  This tends to make Ama women more socially powerful than the men, a welcome change from typical Japanese culture.

Ama societies have existed for over 2,000 years, and are still persisting, although theirAma by Iwase Yoshiyuki 2 decreasing numbers may mean that they’ll vanish in the future.  Too few young people want to continue the arduous lifestyle, and with few Ama living over sixty, the need for replacement is high.  Traditionally, they’re rather communistic, with members contributing their catches to a single pile, without regard to who caught what.  There are punishments for laziness and slacking, but they’re so rare, that in at least one case, the community leaders had forgotten what the official punishment was.  I always wonder whether they needed to come up with something, or whether that group is still working together that well to this day.

Ama Ama divers can dive up to 75 feet, without any equipment except for a crowbar and goggles with special bulbs to help decrease pressure.  Even these goggles are a relatively recent addition, only going back a little over a century.  Before then, abalone were common enough that they were unnecessary, but as they became rarer, Ama needed to dive deeper, and goggles become more and more useful.  The crowbar, called a tegane, is used to pry the abalone off the rock to which it is attached, for like snails and other molluscs, they can stick extremely well to hard surfaces.  An Ama diver makes about sixty to eighty dives per day, each lasting about two minutes, in cold water, and bring up thirty pounds of abalone.

Ama by Iwase Yoshiyuki 4The Ama are divided between the kachido, the “walking people” who dive in shallow waters, often from the shore, and the funado, the “ship people,” older and more experienced, who dive in deeper water from a boat.  The boat’s crew consists of a diver and, usually, a male relative, who rows the boat from and to the shore, and who, by means of a rope, helps lift the Ama diver out of the water, who is by that point weighed down not only by abalone, but also by egg-shaped weights at her waist, in order to speed her descent.  Before a dive, the divers coo, hyperventilating in order to fill their lungs with oxygen.  This low, soft cooing is known is iso nakegi, the elegy of the sea.  After the day is over, the divers take warm baths in order to wash off the salt and restore circulation.

Despite all this, they don’t appear to need any excessive fat, as you can tell.  Obviously, they’re not submerged 24/7, but the water they dive in is also much colder than tropical seas, and they’re still 12,998,000 years shy of our hypothetical evolved mermaids when it comes to experience, so I think they can be forgiven.  You won’t find any human beings closer to mermaids than the Ama, though.

Ama by Iwase Yoshiyuki 5


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3 Responses to The Ama, and Whether Mermaids Are Fat

  1. Very Bangled says:

    That really surprises me that manatees are so low body fat. So they are just built like a tree trunk? I was going to say that maybe mermaids shoukd be fat like manatees because they were what seamen probably mistook for mermaids. But guess that athument is moot. Also, these ladies all have fine looking boobs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very Bangled says:

      Oh my god my typing this morning is deplorable!


    • johnkutensky says:

      I know! I was surprised to learn that those floating larders are actually trim, muscular, floating digestive tracts. I thought for sure that they were fatty, but I guess appearances are deceiving. Makes sense, I suppose, when the water’s that warm. Personally, I like mermaids that are more whale or deep sea fish inspired, that is, enormous creatures with sharp teeth and large eyes, but that’s quite a bit different from the typical mermaid depicted. I guess you could still have a manatee-like mermaid that just lounges around and eats, but even then, they wouldn’t need to be fat.

      As for the boobs, I agree: they look amazing. It doesn’t hurt that I absolutely love that kind of a-inhibited, casual, candid nudity.

      Liked by 1 person

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