The haenyo divers: Korea’s women of the sea
Often referred to as Korean Mermaids, haenyo (women divers on Jeju and Udo Islands) can dive up to 20 meters, holding their breath for several minutes as they harvest the sea bed for abalone, sea urchin, octopus and seaweed. Yet such work in a prevailing Confucian society didn’t sustain itself without considerable costs. The haenyo of Jeju and Udo Island have fought for years protecting their rights against men, governments and even armies in order to make a living from the sea.
And such traditions are now facing extinction. With government officials ramping up efforts to promote tourism to the islands, and with a younger generation of women eager to head to the mainland in search of education or simply a more modern way of life, the once highly revered trade is tapering off.
In the 1960s, there were over 30,000 haenyo diving daily off the shores of Jeju and Udo Island. Today, those numbers barely amount to 5,000, with two-thirds being over the age of 60. With the heydays of the 1970s well behind them (seafood exports to Japan filled the pockets of divers, allowing them to send their daughters to school and pay for prime coastal settlements), haenyo are becoming too old to continue, and there’s no younger generation to follow in their footsteps.