By Nathalie H. Seoul, South Korea

I think I made the most surprising and moving discovery of my life! 

Haenyeo are the mermaids of JEJU Island, South Korea.

They are women, extraordinary forces of nature, free-diving shellfish fisherwomen, without snorkel or oxygen tanks. They are equipped with a simple mask, a wetsuit (formerly cotton clothes), fins, a surface net connected to a buoy, and a metal hook. They dive up to 10 meters deep, for 30 to 60 minutes at a time, 4 to 7 hours a day, and 90 days of a year. They make a unique verbal sound when resurfacing. They must take into account the dangers of the sea, ocean currents, pressure, cold temperatures, sharp volcanic rocks, as well as sharks and jellyfish.

A little bit of history:

Haenyeo appeared in the 17th century, when administrators imposed a heavy tax on male fishermen. Women then took over, leaving their husbands to take care of the home. Their function was confirmed with the disappearance of numerous men during successive wars. This very patriarchal society, dictated by Confucian rules, has become exceptionally matriarchal.The role of the sexes was completely reversed, becoming a unique local particularity.

In the past, they sold or exchanged their fishing products for rice or cotton which do not grow on this volcanic island. They continue to sell, but also offer their cuisine in their fishing cabins, which have become restaurants.

Aged from 15 to over 80 years old (yes, it’s not a mistake, over 80 years old!), they pass down

the profession from mother to daughter. They are categorized by 3 skill level of experience and teach to Haenyeo community. The highest rank of haenyeo, the Daesanggun, are the leaders: they must not only have great seafood harvesting skills, but must also have the ability to predict the weather as accurately as possible, just by listening to the sound of the waves. They never dive alone and are organized in cooperatives.

It is an extremely demanding activity, which gives these mermaid grandmothers extraordinary physical and mental strength.

These women minimize damage to the delicate marine ecosystem and preserve a sustainable fishing environment.  

They share beliefs and rites, according to the shamanist tradition. Before a dive, prayers and songs are said to the Jamsugut, goddess of the sea, or to Yeongdeungsin, goddess of wind, to ask for safety and an abundant catch.

In 1970, there were 20,000; in 2015, only 4,000, 85% of whom are over 60 years old. Younger generations are turning to the tourism professions that the island is developing.

The haenyeo population is in constant decline and will certainly disappear.

Haenyeo are recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Click on this link to discover in few minutes haenyeo:

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