Jeju Mermaids (Seogwipo, Jeju Island)

Jeju Mermaids

Seogwipo, Jeju Island

In the historically patriarchal society in South Korea, some of the small fishing islands off the south coast have flipped the script thanks to the haenyeo. Otherwise known as the Jeju Mermaids, these pioneering and largely elderly fisherwomen have become the heads of their family units.

The practice began around the 18th century as a way of getting around the high taxes male fishermen had to pay on their meager hauls of shellfish, octopus, and abalone. At the time, women were not taxed at all, so women began exploiting this loophole by taking over fishing duties from their husbands.

As this role reversal persisted, islands such as Jeju saw family units flip power structures almost completely as the women free-dived for sea life in the icy East China Sea. The tradition has survived for hundreds of years, but now the haenyeo are in danger of disappearing as more and more of their daughters are choosing life in bigger mainland cities. Today the majority of haenyeo are women over the age of 50 who still go out and dive as deep as 30 feet to collect their family’s main source of income.

Haenyeo is the woman who dives in water without air tanks and hold their breath and generally dive about 15-to-20 meters to pick up all different types of edible seafood. They dive for 2-3 hours. Sometimes, they’re in the water almost six hours. The Haenyeo will hold their breath for up to a minute as they use a hand tool to look for abalone, clams, sea urchins or seaweed.

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