Unveiling the Enchanting World of South Korea's Mermaid Divers

Discover the traditions and resilience of the extraordinary Haenyeo women.


Unveiling the Enchanting World of South Korea's Mermaid Divers | Discover the traditions and resilience of the extraordinary Haenyeo women.

Along the rugged shores of South Korea, a group of extraordinary women has been freediving into the depths of the ocean for centuries, embodying a tradition that has become synonymous with the country's coastal identity—the Haenyeo, or the "mermaid" divers, Oceanographic Magazine reports. In a world where the sea is both a provider and a challenge, these women have carved a unique niche for themselves, blending folklore, tradition, and a deep connection to the ocean.

Diving into History
The history of the Haenyeo is as rich and layered as the ocean they explore, the Dive O’Clock blog explains. Dating back to the 17th century, these sea women have been freediving without any breathing apparatus, venturing into the chilly waters to harvest treasures like abalones, sea cucumbers, and seaweed. 

Initially a male-dominated field, it gradually shifted as women took up the mantle, with the Haenyeo tradition passing from generation to generation, mother to daughter. “Historically on Jeju Island, it was a matriarchal society, it’s the women who were diving and providing for the family, and they were the breadwinners. There was this special connection… family is such a big part of the culture,” photographer Peter Ash Lee told CNN

Being a Haenyeo is not just a profession; it's a way of life. According to CNN, these women, many of them who continue diving into their 60s or 80s, embody a remarkable strength and resilience. Clad in black rubber suits and donning goggles, they plunge into the sea, holding their breath for minutes at a time. Their nimble fingers expertly navigate the underwater terrain, collecting marine delicacies with a precision that comes from a lifetime of experience.

Challenges of the deep
Despite their legendary status, the Haenyeo face challenges in the modern world. Environmental changes, overfishing, and the encroachment of technology threaten their way of life. Younger generations are often reluctant to take up the demanding and perilous profession, leading to concerns about the continuity of this unique tradition.

Lee told CNN that in the past, divers could easily find the marine mollusk called turban conch which is exported to Japan where it’s considered a delicacy. But recently the Haenyeo have to swim out for a full hour before they find them. “Not only has their work become more hazardous, but it’s harder to find marine life to catch. Their sustainability practice has been broken. They have to work that much harder to make a living,” Lee stated. 

Preserving heritage and legacy
Efforts are underway to preserve the Haenyeo heritage, the Dive O’clock blog explains. Cultural centers and museums celebrate their legacy, showcasing artifacts and providing a platform for these women to share their stories. Documentaries and books have also highlighted their lives, bringing attention to the delicate balance they maintain between tradition and the changing tides of the modern world.

The Haenyeo are more than divers; they are the living embodiment of a connection between humanity and the sea, carrying forward a legacy that remains as enchanting as the ocean depths they call home.

Lee told CNN of Ko Ryou-jin, a third-generation Haenyeo, stating  “Her biggest concern was the fact that this tradition was ending. She was speaking to me in Korean, and said, ‘I’m going to be the last one.’ Then she said, in English, ‘I’m the last mermaid.’”

This Father Reversed His Son’s Paralysis with Scuba Therapy
Hundreds of Divers Set the World Record for Largest Underwater Cleanup
Discover the Amazing Benefits of Underwater Exploration