While in the sea, they choose to challenge their physical abilities, training their mind and body to withstand intense pressure and condition their lungs to ignore its desire for oxygen for minutes on end.
The hours spent underwater forms an intimate relationship between the haenyeo and the sea, rendering their mission as not merely a form of subsistence but a self-reliant and enlightened way of life.
On the island Jeju, off the coast of South Korea, beneath the dark waters of the cold, intrepid sea, a mystifying view of free divers can be seen among the ribbons of seaweed.
These female divers defy expectations as they gracefully swim to depths up to 20 meters in search for delicacies such as octopus, shellfish, abalone, and sea urchins.
Spiritual rituals, meaningful songs of labor, sharing the warmth of a fire and contributing to the mutual aid of others forge a community of compassion and unity.
The evidence of a life dedicated to hard work lies in the wrinkles of their faces and in the strength of their hands and fingernails.
They receive no formal training, they learn to dive from their mothers, grandmothers, and other haenyeo, creating a sisterhood bond among the women.
Endowed with newfound independence, strong self-awareness, and a sense of adventure, the haenyeo women cultivate a highly cohesive society.
The women often worked from morning until night, diving for several hours before turning their focus to agricultural farming. Anne Hilty, a cultural health psychologist, explains that they “enjoyed an organic form of leadership unimaginable to their mainland counterparts.” Their leadership does not extend to village chief or government official, rather the ability to choose their own husbands and influence decision-making in their households and villages.The haenyeo led their families out of poverty through committing themselves to a life of labor by independently navigate the sea.Without the aid of oxygen tanks and advanced diving gear, the haenyeo, or women of the sea, don a simple wetsuit, flippers, mask, and weighted belt which elicits the suitable nickname, the last mermaids on earth.Contrary to the illustrated image of a young, strikingly beautiful mermaid, most haenyeo are grandmothers, many in their 80’s, who radiate an inner glow of beauty.
The unique and highly skilled haenyeo provided necessary economic stability and have defined the culture and essence of Jeju, dating back to the 17 century.
Contrary to the mainland Confucian society, women became the breadwinners during the Joseon Era (1392–1910) to avoid the high taxes demanded of the male but not female citizens.