The closest thing to real-life mermaids on earth, haenyo are hardy female divers based in Jeju and Udo islands. These women have been making a living diving for seafood – abalone, snails, clams, conch, sea urchin and seaweed – for generations.
Their diving technique is unique: they dive to twenty meters below sea level, holding their breath for up to two minutes as they gather seafood, using a small knife when needed to upend rocks. They don’t use oxygen tanks, in order to preserve tradition and limit the amount that can be gathered each day. Whatever the weather, early in the morning they don their government-issued wetsuits and masks to fill their nets with food.
In the 1960s, over 30,000 haenyo worked around the islands, making hundreds of thousands of won in sales of seafood in their heyday. These days there are around 5,000 haenyo, and many of them are in their 50s and older, as younger generations of women aren’t so interested in diving for a living. Demand for seafood is still high – many Jeju snails are exported to Japan, and abalone is popular in Korea, but rising levels of global pollution means the seafood quality and quantity is under threat.
On Jeju, there is a haenyo diving school, hoping to teach young women the techniques of the job and encourage them to keep the traditions alive. A Japanese ex-pat took part in the training, and learned about how tough the job is in this episode of KBS World’s My Neighbour Charles.