On the islands of Jeju and Udo, south of the Korean peninsula, elderly women plunge into the cold sea, disappear for minutes and return to the surface with octopus, sea urchin, seaweed and shellfish. They are the Haenyeo, the sea women. They make a living out of harvesting the sea floor, freediving to depths of 20 meters and holding their breath for minutes.
It is believed that the women started diving for pearls and food 1700 years ago. There are different explanations to why it as that only women dive. In the old days the volcanic island did not offer much in terms of farming and according to the most popular the Asian men’s skinny bodies were not suited for diving in the often cold waters, leaving the riches of the sea to the ’rounder’ women. Another theory is that the men were being taxed so heavily that the “non-taxed” women took over to secure the family’s income while others say that it was the men who forced the women to take on the hard work. No matter what the explanation the sea women became the breadwinners on the islands and a matriarchal society soon evolved. Men would stay at home, take care of the house and raise the children.
In contrast to the rest of Confucian Korea, the birth of a girl, a diver in spe, would be cause for celebration. But things are changing. With the increase in seafood exports to Japan in the 70’s, the Haenyo made more money than ever enabling their daughters to go to college and with increased tourism and the island being part of a more modern Korea the men have now found jobs as well. What is left is a generation of haenyos becoming old leaving no young girls to plunge into the waters after them. In the 50s and 60s the sea was abundant with them – around 30.000 of them would take to the sea almost daily. Today they hardly number 5000 and more than two-thirds are over 60 years old while less than five percent are under 40.
There are 81 images in the full edit that are available upon request.
Important to note this story has run in Della Donna (Italy) in 2008.