• These Korean divers are some of the last of their kind (Mijoo Kim )Source: Mijoo Kim
The hard work of the Haenyeo, Korea's female free-divers, is captured in a stunning photo series that pays tribute to their centuries-old tradition.
Bianca Soldani

14 Oct 2016 - 5:03 PM  UPDATED 14 Oct 2016 - 5:03 PM

On the Korean island of Jeju, women have carried on the tradition of free diving for seafood for centuries. Known as the Haenyeo – which translates to “sea women” – the divers go in search of abalone, oysters, seaweed, octopus and conch in the icy coastal waters by hand, and remarkably, they do it all without breathing equipment.

Clad in heavy-duty wetsuits, some Haenyeo hold their breath for several minutes at a time and go as deep as 10 metres, leading them to be nicknamed Korea's real life mermaids.

Once a booming profession - with in excess of 20,000 Haenyeo doing daily harvests as recently as the 1960s - it has now become a dying trade. The work itself is dangerous and gruelling, with divers often out for five or six hours at a time. And as a result of a spike in tourism on the island, many younger women are preferring to work in that industry or seek employment on mainland Korea, rather than follow the tradition of their grandmothers. 

Less than 2,500 Haenyeo still head out to face the sea today and the vast majority are over the age of 60.

In a stunning photo series, Korean photographer Mijoo Kim pays tribute to this last generation of Haenyeo. She tells SBS she wanted to create something that was “socially enlightening and carried meaning”.

“There are still Haenyeos in Korea, but as this industry is declining because of sea pollution and the dangers of the job itself. So it's important to preserve their legacy for posterity."

Ms Kim adds, “I believe that these women divers are carrying on an important cultural legacy during their life-time. I hope to share not only their beauty as women, but also their courageousness for facing such difficulties during their lives.”

In 2014, South Korea applied to have the Haenyeo recongnised on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

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