Haenyeo: The Tenacious South Korean Mermaid Divers

A Haenyeo.
The Haenyeo, directly translated as “sea women,” represents a unique and storied tradition in the coastal towns of Jeju Island, South Korea. For centuries, these skilled divers have played a key role in catching fresh seafood, supporting their families, and fueling the economy. (Image: FootageLab via Dreamstime)

The Haenyeo, directly translated as “sea women,” represents a unique and storied tradition in the coastal towns of Jeju Island, South Korea. For centuries, these skilled divers have played a key role in catching fresh seafood, supporting their families, and fueling the economy.

What sets the Haenyeo apart from other divers is their remarkable free-diving skills. They dive without underwater breathing equipment to depths of 10 meters (32 feet) to 20 meters (66 feet) and for shifts lasting 5 hours. More intriguingly, the Haenyeo comprises only female divers, most over 55 years old. 

They catch seafood such as abalone, sea mustard, turban shells, octopi, sea cucumbers, agar, and more.

The history of the Haenyeo

People in Jeju have been diving for millennia, but the first official record of female divers was four centuries ago, in 1629. Initially, diving was done by both men and women, but this changed in the 17th century. 

One theory is that male divers (called Pojak) abandoned this profession because the royal government confiscated their catch, especially the abalone, as a tax. Most left Jeju to find jobs elsewhere, while others were drafted into the army. Another explanation is that many men died in deep-sea fishing accidents and continuing wars.

Either way, as the number of male divers declined, women had to survive, so more and more women took up sea diving to support their families. They developed unique practices and procedures, made rudimentary diving equipment, and formed tight-knit groups — thus, the Haenyeo was born.

Most of the Haenyeo are aging, and younger women are less interested in taking up the physically demanding and economically unpredictable profession.
Most of the Haenyeo are aging, and younger women are less interested in taking up the physically demanding and economically unpredictable profession. (Image: Zkruger via Dreamstime)

How it’s only women who are diving

Sea diving became predominantly a female field, and their numbers swelled even more when the Japanese colonized Korea in 1910. The Haenyeo even became the sole breadwinners in their families after this colonization since they were allowed to sell their catch in markets. Japanese and Korean merchants even hired some to catch seafood in Japan and mainland Korea — though at relatively lower wages.

It’s estimated that at its peak in the 1950s, there were more than 23,000 female divers. However, these numbers declined to 14,000 by the 1970s and have been declining because younger women got better education opportunities and easier jobs in emerging industries. Today, there are about 4,500 active Haenyeo, most of whom are between 65 and 75 years old, with some over 90 years old.

Challenges facing the Haenyeo 

Aging population

Most of these free-diving women are aging, and younger women are less interested in taking up the physically demanding and economically unpredictable profession. For instance, Youngmi Jang told UNESCO she has been sea diving for over 55 years, while another woman, 90-year-old Hyun Seon-jik, is still going strong doing five-hour shifts with fellow Haenyeo.

The aging population may be a problem for the heritage of the Haenyeo, but most of these women are happy that their daughters don’t have to do this work. 

‘I went into the sea very young and suffered a great deal.” One woman told Sidetracked: “Even though I had many daughters, I never told them to become Haenyeo. I decided to end all this with me.”

Economic pressures

The Haenyeo are also affected by the fluctuating prices of seafood. Today, they have better conditions and gear than a few decades ago, but it’s still a demanding job. Also, various seafood have different harvesting seasons, so some work in rice paddies and farms during the off-season.

Environmental change and bodily changes

Climate change, overfishing, and pollution have led to a decline in marine resources. 

Also, most of the Haenyeo are older, and their bodies have been worn by cold temperatures, carbon dioxide, water pressure, and lack of enough oxygen. So they suffer headaches, joint pains, dizziness, tinnitus, and constipation.

Cultural shifts

In the modern world, societal norms are changing, which may affect the significance of the Haenyeo. Plus, tourism has become a double-edged sword. 

On the one hand, tourism has increased the income of the Haenyeo and led to better working conditions. Conversely, this unique cultural heritage may be diluted as the local population struggles to give visitors the much-touted “authentic experience.”

Most of the Haenyeo are aging, but they are one of Jeju’s most celebrated treasures, and authorities have tried to preserve their heritage.
Most of the Haenyeo are aging, but they are one of Jeju’s most celebrated treasures, and authorities have tried to preserve their heritage. (Image: Anneylier via Dreamstime)

Pillars of environmental conservation

The Haenyeo have formed several tight-knit groups in several villages in Jeju. Youngmi Jang says there is one rule above all: Avoid overharvesting. During the abalone season, they only harvest those 7 cm or longer; the same applies to conchs. 

Over generations and with decades of experience, the Haenyeo have also acquired knowledge of the sea. They understand sea geography, habitats of marine life, and changing tidal currents. The women also know the growing rate of marine life and how to harvest them sustainably.

Commendably, the Haenyeo have refused to adopt modern scuba diving gear, which would enable them to catch more seafood. “What would become of our grandchildren if we exhaust these precious sea resources?” Kang Bu-seon, one leader of the Haenyeo, asks.

Keeping the Haenyeo legacy alive

Most of these remarkable divers are aging, but they are one of Jeju’s most celebrated treasures, and authorities have tried to preserve their heritage. Today, there are several museums and cultural centers where you can learn their history, see the artifacts and traditional diving gears called Muljeoksam, and hear these women share their stories and Haenyeo music.

The Haenyeo, or “mermaid” divers, embody the indomitable spirit of women who have defied the odds to sustain their families and communities for generations. They are a living connection between humans and nature.

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