A group of Haenyeo pose for photographers during a demonstration on South Korea's Jeju Island.
A group of Haenyeo pose for photographers during a demonstration on South Korea's Jeju Island. (Photo: Ed Jones/Getty Images)

It's a difficult thing to see a cultural practice with a long history come to an end. That's what is happening with the haenyeo, or sea women, of South Korea's Jeju Island.

Free diving to gather up the bounty from the sea floor, including abalone, sea cucumbers and sea urchins, dates far back into Korean history, starting around 430 A.D. Divers hold their breath for up to two minutes as they swim to depths of up to 65 feet to gather sea food. While it was a male-dominated activity when it began, women began taking up the practice and by the 18th century women were the primary participants.

But now, with many challenges facing the haenyeo including a lack of young women taking up the trade, the long-lived profession may die out completely.

Haenyeo exit the water after gathering turban shells and abalones.
Haenyeo exit the water after gathering turban shells and abalones. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Using only basic tools, including a wetsuit, goggles, gloves, diving weights, a hoe and a basket attached to a buoy, the women dive in frigid waters for five or even six hours at a time. Everything from conch to octopus, brown alga to sea slugs are fair game.

Though the women use minimal equipment and invest a maximum of strength, endurance and will into their work, they also invest a passion for what they do and a camaraderie with their peers.

During a 2014 project documenting the haenyeo, National Geographic photographer David Alan Harvey noted, "I am amazed every morning these days more and more at these strong women and the boat disembarking resembles a precision military SEAL operation! It's clearly hard physical work and yet the women seem happy and are constantly joking and laughing with each other."

In 2014, South Korea applied to UNESCO to add the haenyo to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
In 2014, South Korea applied to UNESCO to add the haenyo to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Centuries ago, as diving became more lucrative and haenyeo brought in food and money for the family — often earning on average more than 40 percent of the family’s income — the culture on Jeju became semi-matriarchal.

Indeed, in some communities where sea diving accounted for the majority of a family’s income, the husbands would stay home and watch the children while the women went to work underwater. This was not the norm, however.

"They are, by tradition, women, nicknamed the Amazons of Asia in a custom that has as much to do with the island's sad history as its geography," writes the New York Times. "The reversal of traditional gender roles, with women being the chief breadwinners, made the island an outlier in Korea’s patriarchal society."

A South Korean haenyeo puts on fins in preparation to catch turban shells and abalones.
A South Korean haenyeo puts on fins in preparation to catch turban shells and abalones. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Even into the 1960s, the bounty brought to the surface by haenyeo accounted for 60 percent of Jeju's fisheries revenue. However, industrialization, a change in focus for the island's exports and the dangers of diving have all contributed to the decline of the practice, with few young women taking up the mantle. When choosing between the difficult work of diving or taking advantage of educational opportunities or positions in new industries, younger women choose the latter.

A South Korean haenyeo is dressed and ready to swim for abalone.
A South Korean haenyeo is dressed and ready to swim for abalone. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Diver Magazine writes, "The Haenyo, 30,000 strong just 50 years ago, are fewer than 2,000 in number today… Today's Haenyo want their daughters to keep their trade alive but are reluctant to push it because they equate the absence of passion with ability. Without the one, the other is missing. Their hope is that others will become sea women. For its part the better-educated younger generation fails to see the appeal of the wetsuit over the business suit. The pen, the computer, the contemporary world of commerce holds far more allure than damp rubber suits, masks and fins."

A haenyeo brings up her catch after diving to the sea bottom to collect food.
A haenyeo brings up her catch after diving to the sea bottom to collect food. (Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/Getty Images)

The lack of interest in the dwindling profession is made most prominent in the age of the participants. In 1970, more than half of all haenyeo were between the ages of 30-49 years old. Today, 98 percent are over the age of 50, and some are even over 80 years old.

Though the trade is dying out, haenyeo are still considered one of the greatest treasures of Jeju's culture. In March 2014, the government asked UNESCO to include haenyeo on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The government and haenyeo alike work to help the profession persist.

As the New York Times notes, "To help keep the tradition alive, the Jeju government pays for their wet suits and subsidizes their medical and accident insurance. Their government-financed shelters are now equipped with heated floors and hot-water showers. The sea women have also regulated themselves — imposing voluntary no-harvest seasons, no-diving zones and monthly limits on the number of diving days — to sustain the profession."

Haenyeo divers perform a folk dance at a festival on traditional Korean culture in Jeju, South Korea.
Haenyeo divers perform a folk dance at a festival on traditional Korean culture in Jeju, South Korea. (Photo: Maxim Tupikov/Shutterstock)

Despite the respect that remaining haenyeo receive, it isn't enough to attract newcomers to the profession and keep the legacy of these living mermaids afloat.

"Yet one does not have to bow to what seems inevitable," writes Kuriositas. "Each day the remaining haenyo gather at the shore line. They sing their songs of love, loss and lament as they ready themselves, don their wet suits and dive once more as they have always done as did their mothers and grandmothers. The tradition may pass but for these ladies, this is the time of their lives."

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.