INSPIRED by the KOREAN 'HAENYEO'
They are part of a tradition that has been passed down from mother to daughter for a thousand years. The Korean Sea Women, or ‘haenyeo‘ of Jeju Island venture into frigid depths of up to 20 meters without any breathing equipment. The women brave the dangers of the ocean, as they scour the seabed for abalone, octopus, and other seafood. Today, most of the haenyeo are into their later years, but in this series, they are portrayed as they once were: young and free.
THE LAST MERMAIDS
The History of the Haenyeo
Jeju Island is home to an extraordinary community of women who harvest food and riches from the ocean floor, a tradition that can be traced back to the 17th century. They are the haenyeo, or the ‘sea women’ of South Korea who venture into the waters of the Korea Strait. The women swim down to 20 meters without any breathing equipment, braving the dangers of free diving, as they scour the seabed for abalone, octopus, and other seafood. These women hold their breath for around 2 minutes, withstand intense water pressure and frigid temperatures, while struggling to improve their bounty in order to make ends meet.
“Tears streaming from her eyes, the old haenyeo ventures back
into the same waves her dead daughter rose up on after getting
her foot caught in seaweed while diving.”
– Koh Hee Young
The ideology of these noble diving women is inspiring.
The haenyeo live in harmony with the natural world and have a unique perspective. They see the world from above and below and occupy a space between fact and fiction. The gendered nature of their tradition is passed down from mother to daughter and they share knowledge that relies on a deep understanding of the ocean. It’s knowledge that can only be learned through direct experience.
The Last Mermaids
They hang weightless, deep in the ocean, on the threshold between this world and the next. Their bodies are a vessel for stories that span generations, timeless stories that tell of suffering and survival, but most of all, love. In the end, what rises to the surface is the unflinching love they carry for the sea and the legacy that we are leaving for our children. It weaves a human story that swims against the tide.
Guardians of the Ocean
The haenyeo not only harvest the ocean, but also play the role of guardians, protecting the marine environment around Jeju, but sadly they are a dying breed. The patterns they used to work are breaking. Most of the women are over fifty years old, with the oldest in their nineties. Their numbers have seen a steep decline, from more than 14,000 active haenyeo in the 1970s to fewer than 4,500 today. Industrialisation has led to the younger generation choosing to try their luck in the cities and in addition to this the quality of the ocean is deteriorating rapidly. Despite numerous protests, construction of a new naval base continues that will further damage the island’s marine ecology. In an effort to preserve the rich tradition of the haenyeo they are now listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The images below show the Haenyeo in their traditional clothing.