A Glimpse Inside the Mysterious World of Asia’s Real-Life ‘Mermaids’


| LAST UPDATE 10/25/2022

By Amie Alfaro

While they may not be like the mermaids we see on TV, these divers from an island off of South Korea are certainly a wonder. Here's a look back at the origins of this dying tradition, known as haenyeo.

Out to Sea

It is a sight to see. A group of elderly women is heading out to sea. This is no ordinary whale-watching tour or cruise around the waters. These women are the last of a centuries-old tradition.

Korean Women Free DiversKorean Women Free Divers
UNESCO via YouTube

They are the last of the haenyeo: a group of women who free-dive for shellfish. They carry sharp knives with them and are outfitted in wetsuits. They dive underwater and can stay down for minutes at a time without any oxygen tank attached to them.

Island Living

The haenyeo live on an island called Jeju. It is located about 50 miles off the coast of South Korea and is the country's largest island. While the island may not be as populated and exciting as Seoul, more than half a million people still call it home.

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Jiseon I / EyeEm via Getty Images

The tropical island is famous for its unreal landscape views. It is home to beautiful beaches, a water park, and real-life mermaids. The tradition of the haenyeo began on the island centuries ago and still lives on today. However, many worry that the practice will die out as the population ages.

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9 to 5

The practice of the haenyeo is not an easy job, to say the least. It requires the women to be on the waters for 7 hours a day for at least 90 days a year. They do all of this without the aid of oxygen tanks, too! They can hold their breath for at least a minute before rising to the surface.

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Wikimedia Commons

Not only that, but the women can dive up to 10m underwater. It is definitely not your regular 9 to 5 working day. These women are engaging in a practice that has been passed down from generation to generation. Yet nothing is stopping these ladies who have earned a special place in a patriarchal society.

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Say Goodbye to Tradition

For many centuries, it was men who typically dove underwater to fish for food. They were the ones who were facing the rough waters to bring home food for the family. Over time, a shift began to happen when women took over the profession in this patriarchal society.

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Émile Bourdaret/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The tradition of diving in Jeju is over 1,500 years old. Korean culture is typically a patriarchal one with designated roles for each gender. This makes it even more interesting that the haenyeo were not only women but often times were the breadwinners of their families.

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Rising to the Occasion

So, how exactly did this shift begin? According to reports, the first mentions of female divers in Jeju were in the 1600s. It was not until the 1700s that women took over the typically male role. There are a few explanations as to why this change occurred.

Jeju Island Korea Landmarks Jeju Island Korea Landmarks
Wikimedia Commons

During the 1700s, the island's male population was dying in large amounts, whether it be from military or marine-related casualties. The women still had families to feed even if there were no men to complete the task. Therefore, they began practicing the art of free diving.

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More Reasons To Work

The was a war happening during the 1700s, which is why most of the men were taken away from their homes. While the conflict was going on, the king of Korea still demanded high taxes from his citizens. The women had no choice but to dive not only for food but to search for abalone, which was extremely valuable at the time.

King of Korea ArtifactsKing of Korea Artifacts
clu via Getty Images

Not only was it out of necessity, but it also made more sense that the women were the ones who would dive for seafood. Women typically have a higher percentage of body fat which is better suited for diving in cold water. Additionally, women will start to shiver at lower temperatures than men.

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Hunting for Survival

The haenyeo continue to hunt for the same creatures their predecessors did all those years ago. The abalone is a type of marine snail. They helped keep families afloat in the 1700s and, to this day, are considered one of the most expensive shellfish in the world.

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김형찬 via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the abalone, the women also catch squid, conches, octopus, sea urchins, and many other species of marine life. They hold their breath as they dive 30 meters below the water's surface and use sharp knives to hunt for their food. They keep their findings in a net attached to a float.

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A Synchronized Uniform

For many years, the haenyeo would dress in swimsuits made from cotton. This meant they could only stay in the water for 60 minutes a day during the cold winter months. With the modern invention of wetsuits, the haenyeo could extend their work days.

Most Expensive Shellfish AbaloneMost Expensive Shellfish Abalone
Wikimedia Commons

Now they can stay in the water for 6 hours a day despite how cold it may be. It makes such a difference! They also wear masks, diving fins, chest weights, and gloves. They will take sharp knives for hunting and a net attached to a flotation device to hold their findings.

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Dangerous Waters

This profession is not for the faint of heart. It is an extremely difficult job that requires years of training and comes with brutal challenges to overcome. Dangerous creatures like sharks and jellyfish pose a threat. Also, weather conditions can create a harsh work environment.

Great White Shark HuntingGreat White Shark Hunting
Hermanus Backpackers via Wikimedia Commons

When a photographer for National Geographic visited the island in 2014, he was told that two divers had recently been killed. The divers must swim through seaweed-infested waters and can accidentally inhale water. The dangers of this profession prove how strong and brave these real-life mermaids are.

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Rituals & Practices

The tradition of the haenyeo is strong. The practice is centuries old and is passed down from each generation to the next. Before each dive, the women perform a prayer ritual. They pray to the goddess of the sea, Jamsugut, for protection in the water.

Ancient Korean Prayer Rituals Ancient Korean Prayer Rituals
UNESCO via YouTube

When training to become a haenyeo, there are a few traditional steps. Girls will begin training as young as age 11, where they start learning in shallower waters. There are 3 groupings of haenyeo. The sanggun are the most experienced divers. In comparison, the junggun and the hagun are the less experienced levels.

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The Japanese Arrive

In 1910, the Japanese empire seized control over Korea. After years of constant battle, Japan annexed the country, which meant that the island of Jeju was now under Japanese control and influence. During the Japanese occupation, the role of the haenyeo and women transformed.

Japanese Soldiers Korean WarJapanese Soldiers Korean War
Cornell University Library via Wikimedia Commons

With the introduction of capitalism by the Japanese and there no longer being a king to pay tributes to, the haenyeo were permitted to keep the profits they earned from their dives. Additionally, many women were hired by the Japanese to work on the mainland. Under the new regime, women sometimes made half the household income.

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A New Era

After World War II, the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces on August 15, 1945. With this surrender, the Japanese empire also gave away its occupation of Korea. But even with the Japanese gone, the haenyeo still held the same status in society as they did under Japanese rule.

Japanese Surrender WWII HistoryJapanese Surrender WWII History
Army Signal Corps photographer LT. Stephen E. Korpanty via Wikimedia Commons

The female divers were able to keep doing what they loved despite the backdrop of what was happening around them. The power of the matriarchy was evident on the island of Jeju, and it did not seem like it was going anywhere. The women continued working as usual...

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Rise of the Matriarchy

Mara Island is a tiny island right off the coast of Jeju. On their island, the haenyeo were the sole earners of the household, and it was the men who would stay at home to fulfill domestic duties. This tradition of fiercely independent women remains on the island today.

Mara Island South KoreaMara Island South Korea
Terra Mater via YouTube

The freedom and independence these women on Mara Island enjoyed were terrific. However, the independence these women had was not accepted everywhere in society. Many other places were not as welcoming to the idea of women as the home's sole earners.

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All in a Day's Work

While there were men, like the ones on Mara Island, who took over domestic duties in the household, this was not the case in all families. Many women would dive all day and still be expected to perform the typical domestic responsibilities of the wife and mother.

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한국정책방송원 via Wikimedia Commons

For some families, it did not matter that the women were earning the wages for the family. The expectation remained that they would have to cook, clean, and take care of the children. Despite all the progress made, the traditional ways of life remained.

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Last in Line

The haenyeo women would face dangerous working conditions and make money for the family - yet they could not enjoy the same freedoms as the men. Outside of the water and the home, women were treated as second-class citizens. There were many things they were not able to do.

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한국정책방송원 (KTV) via Wikimedia Commons

The women could not run for public office or hold any positions. They could not inherit their families' estates after a loved one passed. Despite their contributions to their families and the workforce, the haenyeo women were considered to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

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More Opportunities Blossom

With the 1960s came a wave of industrialization in Korea. The government wanted to jumpstart the economy. On the island of Jeju, Mandarin orange farms began to pop up. Hoards of people started careers as farmers instead of turning to the traditional role of diving.

Mandarin Orange Korean ProduceMandarin Orange Korean Produce
Batholith via Wikimedia Commons

Then in the 1970s, there was a boom in the seafood industry. The haenyeo gained more wealth than they previously had. This newfound success allowed them to send their children to better schools, which resulted in many women pursuing more urban career paths.

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A Population in Trouble

The haenyeo were facing a big problem. Fewer people were joining the profession. In addition to the emphasis on education and the movement towards orange farming, the government began to focus on Jeju's tourism industry. Over time it became the most prominent industry on the island.

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Wikimedia Commons

This offered yet another alternative to work instead of free diving. By this time, many of the remaining haenyeo were over 60 years old. In 2012, there was still a 90-year-old who was going out to dive. At this time, the youngest in the ranks was in her 40s. The real-life mermaids were facing trouble.

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The haenyeo were still making waves decades after they first scoured the open waters. In 2016, the group of women was added to UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Being on this list meant more awareness would be brought to the haenyeo.

Woman Divers Korea UNESCOWoman Divers Korea UNESCO
Terra Mater via YouTube

The women from Jeju understood the recognition and awareness that came with being on this list. They had preserved generations of tradition and defied society's expectations for their entire existence. But despite making it onto this exclusive list, they still faced a not-so-bright future.

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A Haenyeo's Fears

Lee Mae-Chun is a haenyeo living in Jeju. She was interviewed by KOREA.net. She talked about how she began training and working as a haenyeo when she was only a teenager. Her mother and mother-in-law were haenyeo. She told KOREA.net that becoming a haenyeo "was inevitable for me."

Older Woman Diver KoreaOlder Woman Diver Korea
Chung Sung-Jun/Staff via Getty Images

Now in her 70s, she remarked on her fears about the profession's future. The job requires a lot of training, hard work, and mental dedication. It is not an easy path, and many choose not to travel in the same direction as their grandmothers once had.

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A Changing Profession

In her interview, Mae-Chun talked about how the profession has changed over the years. There was a time when finding seaweed was effortless, but now it is not as easy to locate. Pollution has had an enormous impact on the conditions underwater, too.

Pollution Waters South KoreaPollution Waters South Korea
Terra Mater via YouTube

Abalone is becoming harder to find. There are also positive changes. When Mae-Chun first began free diving, they used to wear cotton swimsuits. It was in the 1970s that they introduced wetsuits. Now the divers could stay in the water for extended periods.

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The Traditional Way

The traditional path of becoming a haenyeo requires a lot of hard work. Not only does one have to be physically strong, but one also has to be strong mentally. Mae-Chun explained, "This is a lifetime work that needs commitment, and it can't be mastered in a short period of time."

Haenyeo Korean Seafood ShellfishHaenyeo Korean Seafood Shellfish
Terra Mater via YouTube

There are many things that one has to learn to master the art of the haenyeo fully. They need to know the sea and the island inside and out. The women are experts on wind patterns and can tell what the weather will be just by observing seashells. Everything they know is crucial to their survival and success in the water.

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The Youngest Diver

Chae Ji-ae is one of the youngest divers in Jeju. After many years of living in Seoul and working as a hairdresser, she returned to the tropical island. When she decided to move back to the island, she had no idea that she was going to join the ranks of women in the haenyeo.

Young Women Seoul Korea Young Women Seoul Korea
Chung Sung-Jun/Staff via Getty Images

She wanted to spend more time with her family and maybe open a hair salon on the island. Now she is following in her mother's footsteps, who was also a haenyeo. Ji-ae is in her 30s and is one of the youngest divers. There are only about 10 divers in their 30s.

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“Harder Than It Looked”

Despite growing up seeing her mom work, Ji-ae was not ready for just how challenging this work would be. When asked by her local newspaper, The Jeju Weekly, about being a haenyeo, she said, "the job is much harder than it looked from the outside."

South Korea Women WorkersSouth Korea Women Workers
Terra Mater via YouTube

She figured that if women in their 80s could do the job, then people in their 30s should be able to do it without any trouble. However, there are decades of experience and wisdom that only the older divers have obtained that help them. There are aspects of the job that are not so pleasant.

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Tough Love

Nonetheless, Chae Ji-ae is happy with her decision to follow her mother's way of life. She would rather deal with seasickness, harsh water conditions, and long work days than worry about her customers at the hair salon. She also loves the community that comes with being a haenyeo.

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김형찬 via Wikimedia Commons

When Ji-ae had to leave the work day early, she worried she would lose out on a full day's wages. The other divers pulled together their catches and gave her some of their earnings so she would not go home empty-handed. This sense of community is hard to find.

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Not for Everyone

Even though Chae Ji-ae may be happy with her decision to become a haenyeo, it is not something many are up for pursuing. When Lee Mae-Chun's daughter-in-law tried focusing on being a haenyeo in her free time, she quickly realized how difficult it was.

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Wikimedia Commons

Mae-Chun said of her daughter-in-law, "she realized how hard it was and that it's a job that can't be done part-time." Not only does a woman need to be physically strong, but she also has to withstand a lot of mental stress and pressure. Every day these women risk their lives going out to the sea.

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Becoming a Haenyeo

There are many things that one must learn to become a haenyeo. There is a school for the haenyeo in Jeju. It is way easier to learn and master if someone starts at a young age. A lot of aspects of the job can only be learned through trial and error.

Community Meeting Korean WomenCommunity Meeting Korean Women
UNESCO via YouTube

It takes time and lots of practice to know exactly when to enter the water, the habits of marine life, and where to catch certain types of seafood. Mae-Chun said that she is still learning new things every day. After six decades of working in this industry, there is more to understand and improve!

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Through Thick & Thin

There are still women who go out in all weather conditions. They dive for seafood and continue the traditions of the women all those centuries ago. Even if the waters are treacherous, there is a job to complete. However, Lee Mae-Chun does not join them.

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Terra Mater via YouTube

Now, she only likes to go out when the weather is nice. She only wants to go "when there are no waves, and the water is calm. There are some windows when there's good weather for a week, so I head out to sea every day." After decades of hard work, it seems Mae-Chun deserves this life.

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Pop Culture References

The women have also been mentioned in popular culture. They have been featured in newspaper articles, as the subjects of documentaries, and in movies and television shows. There have also been photographers who have documented these extraordinary women and all that they do.

Lisa See Author NovelsLisa See Author Novels
@lisasee_writer via Instagram

They have also been the subjects of novels and songs, like Lisa See's novel The Island of Sea Women. There is so much to learn from these women, and their work inspires many. Even if their numbers are falling each year, the notoriety they have gained is endless.

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The Ama Divers

The haenyeo are becoming more famous every year. As word spreads about these amazing women, the public is fascinated by their way of life and the traditions they have kept alive for many centuries. But the women divers of Jeju are not alone in the world.

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Buddhika Weerasinghe / Stringer via Getty Images

The ama divers are from Japan. They are also keeping alive an old tradition, which dates back to 1,000 years ago. They gather pearl oysters and recently have been displaying their practices as a tourist attraction. This may be a source of inspiration for the haenyeo.

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Looking to the Future

Today, the haenyeo have to look towards the future. There is an aging population that will eventually not be able to continue diving. They will also have to contend with the fact that the younger generation is not flocking to the profession as it once did in the past.

Japanese Asian Traditions TodayJapanese Asian Traditions Today
UNESCO via YouTube

They will have to figure out a way to keep their traditions alive and garner interest around their way of life. Will they be able to attract more recruits like Chae Ji-ae? Or will they become a tourist attraction like the ama divers in Japan? Only time will tell what will happen to these real-life mermaids...

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