Haenyo, literally meaning “sea women”, are the female deep-sea divers of Jeju-do, South Korea. They live a dual lifestyle—one belonging to the land and the other to the sea. It is easy to see how the mermaid myth began as you watch the Haenyo surface from the deep. Haenyo also communicate with song and whistles, contributing further to their mythical status. With mermaid statues scattered throughout the coast of this island, it’s clear that these women are upholding a tradition as well as supporting a myth.
Haenyo perform perilous work to provide for their families, spending five hours a day diving in rubber suits, without air tanks as the law requires, to collect valuable sea life attached to the bottom of the ocean floor. They can hold their breath for more than three minutes and dive to depths of thirty meters. Because tradition dictates that only women dive, the Haenyo have created a matriarchal society on the island that differs greatly from the patriarchal one on the mainland of South Korea.
Today, the number of Haenyo is declining drastically and its tradition is in danger of extinction as fewer women are choosing it as a profession due to better opportunities and industrialization.
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