A group of sea women preparing to plunge to the ocean depths

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Each of the elderly women utters a distinctive cry as they surface around me from the bitterly cold East China Sea, clutching fistfuls of seaweed. From my left comes a sound like the bleating of a goat; ahead, a determined groan of endurance. All of them are whistling too, an ancient technique to expel carbon dioxide from the lungs. Occasionally, the wetsuit-clad grandmothers exchange a few words after depositing their seaweed in sacks tied to orange buoys beside them. But none of them rests for more than a minute before plunging to the seabed once more — a rhythm they maintain for five hours.

These are the haenyeo (sea women) of South Korea’s Jeju island, who have dived in search of seaweed and shellfish since at least the 17th century. Their work is one of the country’s most celebrated traditions but one that many islanders fear could soon be consigned to the past.

Traditionally a job handed down from mother to daughter, haenyeo life has been shunned in recent decades by nearly all the girls born in Jeju’s seaside villages, who have tended to favour more comfortable lives in the island’s two cities or on the mainland. From more than 14,000 in the 1970s, the number of haenyeo has dwindled to fewer than 4,500 today.

The vast majority are aged over 50, with the oldest in their nineties. But, despite their age, they continue to perform feats beyond most women in their twenties — diving to depths of up to 20m, holding their breath for as long as two minutes at a time.

“These could be the last of the haenyeo,” says Kim Hong-chul, who manages a diving association in the village of Jongdal-ri. “The haenyeo you see today had no education, no choice but to do that job. But now the young women want to do different things. It’s a real problem for our community.”

With the women at sea, the waterfront is deserted except for their elderly husbands, with cushions strapped to their backsides, who crouch as they sort their wives’ catch of seaweed from the previous day.

Behind us, an old lady drives past on a small truck loaded with seaweed. “There goes Kwon Young-ae,” Kim says. “She’s finished diving a bit earlier than the others today because of her age — she’s 85. Her older sister still dives too.”

Half an hour later a fishing boat drifts into view, bearing two dozen women with more than a tonne of seaweed. As the husbands move in to greet them and deal with the catch, the women disembark, most of them trudging swiftly past their menfolk to a nearby changing room.

Ra Wal-soo, 89, donning her wetsuit as she gets ready to dive

A cohort of elderly freediving fisherwomen would stand out anywhere but especially so in South Korea, where fewer women work than in almost any other advanced economy, and where destitution among old people has become a national crisis. “Normally in South Korea the men take charge of the women but not in Jeju,” says Kang Kwon-yong, curator of the nearby Haenyeo Museum. “These women have their own jobs, they earn their own money, they’re the ones who resolve problems in the family. Most Koreans are still quite old-fashioned but these old ladies are the ones living in the 21st century.”

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A haenyeo carrying her haul and equipment on her back at Aewol-eup on Jeju

The next morning I find about 30 haenyeo sheltering in the shade of a bush at a roadside near Jongdal-ri and joshing among themselves. Amid the banter, Yoo Ok-yeon, 62, sounds a darker note as she considers the risks of putting elderly bodies through such strenuous exercise and severe pressure changes. “We never know in advance if we’re going to die or not,” she tells me. “So many have died from heart attacks. The last one from our lot was a couple of years ago. She didn’t recognise that her blood oxygen was getting too low.” Yoo’s fears are justified — an annual average of nine haenyeo have died in the water over the past four years.

After a brief pep talk from Kim, the haenyeo make their way down to the sea, stepping with ease over sharp volcanic rocks before dividing into two groups. I float among them as they pursue a seemingly interminable cycle, swimming between seaweed bag and sea floor. After five hours, the women stagger from the sea under bulging sacks of still-saturated seaweed, each weighing as much as 30kg. Oh Byeong-soon, a grandmother-of-six, is among the last to emerge — at 77 still one of the hardest workers in the village after more than half a century in a job she began aged 20.

“If I weren’t diving, I’d just be growing potatoes,” she says. “I dived right through pregnancy, up to the ninth month.” This was normal practice, according to historians of Jeju, who record cases of haenyeo giving birth on boats during a day’s diving, and even strapping their young children to the mast while they worked.

Historical records suggest diving was once a job for Jeju men but this changed in the 17th century, when the Korean king conscripted huge numbers of them into his army while still requiring large amounts of abalone to be sent to him as tribute. Fearful of recriminations, Jeju’s women had no option but to take to the sea.

The haenyeo have become emblematic of a distinctive culture of which islanders are fiercely proud — and which is acknowledged by mainlanders, who commonly complain that the strong Jeju dialect is virtually another language. The complex relationship between the two reached a horrific low point between 1948 and 1954, when Seoul’s ruthless response to a leftwing rebellion on Jeju wiped out about a tenth of the island’s population.

“That was a really tough time,” recalls 80-year-old haenyeo Ahn Yong-seon, whom I find one day in the northern village of Iho where she is repairing her netted seaweed sack. Her husband was crippled in the violence, meaning she has had to support her family for her entire adult life. Soon, her work completed, she treads gingerly to her mobility scooter and slowly drives away.

Later I wade into the nearby sea, where other haenyeo are at work. One of them catches my eye and grins, brandishing a handful of seaweed. I ask her name. “Dunno, I’m 83,” she replies with an impish smirk.

Over the centuries, unique traditions have emerged among the divers, including songs that live on as haunting testaments to the hardships of their work. “One thing that can’t be done is haenyeo work,” one song goes. “As I enter the sea, the afterlife comes and goes . . . I eat wind instead of rice . . . take the waves as my home.”

Still alive, too, is their unique form of Korean shamanism. Every February, haenyeo across Jeju hold a ceremony in honour of Yeongdeung Halmang, the goddess of the winds, sending straw boats out to sea to accompany her as she departs the island for another year. “They really believe in those gods — they believe the gods help them hold their breath,” says Chua Hye-kyoung, who studies the haenyeo at the Jeju Development Institute. “They pray to be kept safe.”

A haenyeo diving at Morado Island just off the coast of Jeju

But in other ways the haenyeo life has changed with the times, I hear from Park Bong-sook, whom I meet near a luxury resort on Jeju’s east coast. As we talk, some attendees of an international conference wander down to photograph themselves at the adjacent lighthouse, barely glancing at Park and four other haenyeo drying their seaweed in the sun.

Born in 1945, Park started working as a haenyeo at 15 and spent a few years diving off the mainland’s southern regions before returning at 23 to marry. “It would have been nice to marry a man from the mainland,” she laughs. “Jeju men just leave their women to do all the work.”

The biggest change, she says, came in the 1970s, when the government began subsidising wetsuits for the women, who had previously dived in loose cotton clothing, even in winter. “It was really hard, really freezing,” she recounts, her cheerful demeanour suddenly absent as she mimes the suffering. “We just did it, because we were young. But it was hard to work for more than one or two hours at a time.”

The wetsuits were a major advance that have enabled the haenyeo to boost their earnings by spending longer in the water, and to continue diving well into old age, says Kang at the Haenyeo Museum.

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A diver jumps from a fishing boat off Jeju as other haenyeo clutch the orange buoys to which they attach their seaweed sacks

The most productive haenyeo earn up to Won30m ($25,000) a year, Kang says, though the local government estimates that most make less than half that from their diving. The women typically work intermittently in spring and winter — observing seasonal prohibitions to preserve stocks — and top up their income with second jobs, such as farming.

Their financial independence is remarkable in a country where elderly poverty is a huge problem. Forty-nine per cent of South Koreans over 65 live on less than half the median income — the highest proportion in the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of advanced economies. That has contributed to a nearly fivefold increase in the elderly suicide rate since 1990 to a level that is by far the highest of any developed country.

Divers climbing over volcanic rock before entering the waters

Such penury and despair is not shared by Koh Choon-san, who steadies herself against a baby’s pushchair loaded with diving equipment as she watches her three daughters emerge from the sea on to the tiny island of Biyang. At 86, Koh is in her 70th year as a haenyeo, though she has now cut back to no more than 10 days a month in the water, and today is leaving the work to her daughters, whose ages range from 52 to 60.

89-year-old Ra Wal-soo comes up for air

Back at home, the sisters weigh their catch, the eldest reading out the weight of each bulging sack with a celebratory tone. In all, they have collected 110kg of seaweed in two hours, which they will sell for about Won1,000 ($1) per kilogramme. “I’ll do it till I die,” Koh says. But she is pessimistic about the future. “We don’t have young women learning to do this,” she says. “In about 30 years, our culture will be gone.”

Yet just as the flexible nature of the work has enabled Koh to support herself into her ninth decade, it could also be the key to attracting a new generation of haenyeo.

A haenyeo taking off her wetsuit after a dive

In her home village on Jeju’s south coast I meet Chae Ji-ae, 31, one of only a handful of haenyeo from her generation. Chae initially decided to steer clear of the job, working as a hairdresser in Seoul for a decade. Like many South Korean women, however, she struggled to balance her long working hours with the demands of motherhood. Having grown up watching her mother and grandmother work the ocean floor, the decision to return home and continue the family trade became obvious, though it meant moving away from her husband, who still works on the mainland. “Now I can have free time with my kids, work to the sound of the waves, enjoy the clean breeze,” she says. “There might not be many of us in the future but I don’t think we’ll disappear completely.”

Simon Mundy is the FT’s Seoul correspondent. Additional reporting by Shin Ha-young and Kang Buseong

The exhibition, HaeNyeo: Women of the Sea, by Hyung S. Kim was exhibited at The Korean Cultural Service New York and will tour internationally.

Photographs: Daun Kim

Slideshow photographs: Hyung S. Kim/Courtesy of Korean Cultural Service New York

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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