Culture

The Haenyo Are South Korean Mermaids

Remember when you watched The Little Mermaid, then told your entire class that you wanted to be a mermaid when you grew up? No, just us? We digress. A group of elderly South Korean women are considered real-life mermaids, diving depths of up to 65 feet (20 meters) without any oxygen tanks. Beat that, Ariel.

The haeyno, or "sea women," live off the Jeju and Udo Islands in South Korea and dive in the Korea Strait for sea urchins, sea cucumbers, abalone, and squid. According to The Independent, Koreans often say that "haenyo do the work of the dead in the land of the living." The women can be in the water for hours at a time, holding their breath for up to 2 minutes during each dive. They also withstand frigid waters whose temperatures drop as low as minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit) in the winter. Although women have primarily held this role since the 18th century, the haenyo had been male-dominated since the 5th century. As CNN Travel reports, the divers "have fought for years protecting their rights against men, governments and even armies in order to make a living from the sea."

In a 2016 photo series by Mijoo Kim called The Mother of the Sea, the photographer depicts what could be the last generation of haenyo on Jeju Island. This group of women are in their 60s and 70s, and there aren't any younger generations of Korean women learning to take over in their stead. Instead, they're moving to the mainland of South Korea to pursue higher education and modern careers. Through the photo series, Kim hopes to share "not only their beauty as women, but also their courageousness for facing such difficulties during their lives."

South Korea's Elderly Haenyo Divers

See South Korea's mermaids in action.

Written by Anna Todd November 21, 2016

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.