Meet the Mermaids

October 21, 2010

On the surface, they are ordinary: mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. But dive deeper and you will discover these “mermaids” of Jeju are full of hidden wonder.

On the surface, they are ordinary: mothers, grandmothers, aunts. But like their island home, the South Korean island of Jeju, the women in these images are full of hidden wonder. To know them, dive deep — 65 feet to be exact. Jen Judge
On a brisk morning, wind hammers Jeju’s rocky coastline. But the women don’t turn away. Today the haenyeo will plunge like mermaids into the 57-degree water and dive to the ocean floor. Jen Judge
No special breathing apparatuses for them, just plastic-foam floats, worn-out masks and rubber wetsuits. Jen Judge
Mermaids of the South Korean Island of Jeju. Jen Judge
They’ll spend as many as six hours collecting abalone, conch and seaweed. Jen Judge
They hold their breath for three minutes at a time to descend. At the bottom of the sea, they wield sharp tools to fill their nets. Upon each ascent, they exhale a long, slow sigh that sounds more like a whistle. Jen Judge
Mermaids of the South Korean Island of Jeju. Jen Judge
More than 150 days a year, the haenyeo battle the elements to dive. In the morning’s early hours, they gauge changing tides and traverse the jagged shore to plan their day’s work. Jen Judge
Mermaids of the South Korean Island of Jeju. Jen Judge
When the day is over, they carry their catch back to the villages with pride. It’s said that Jeju is the only place in Confucian Asia where births of girls are celebrated as much — or more — than births of boys. Jen Judge
Mermaids of the South Korean Island of Jeju. Jen Judge
For the early divers, the occupation meant more financial freedom, more involvement in social issues, more respect from the community. Now, the women divers are deemed a phenomenon by people all over the world. Jen Judge
When they are not in the water, the haenyeo retreat to dive houses near the coast, where they store equipment and prepare their catch to be sold or eaten. It’s a retreat from the island, from the world, from the sea, where Hong can rest after a long day in the water, dry her clothes out by a fire and connect with her kindred spirits. Jen Judge
The haenyeo share their prizes at the restaurants they own across the island. In simple stone buildings, the day’s catch is made into local specialties, like rice porridge with abalone. Jen Judge
The food they serve — be it abalone, conch, octopus or sea urchin — is renowned for its freshness; after all, no boat or line is used to collect it. The haenyeo themselves are regarded as gatekeepers to the sea. Jen Judge
Octopus is a common catch of the day by the Jeju mermaids. Jen Judge
Sea urchin is another favorite catch by the Jeju mermaids. Jen Judge
At one time there were more than 30,000 haenyeo on Jeju; today there are barely 5,000. Pollution and overfishing have diminished the wealth of sea life that sustains the island’s fishing culture. Jen Judge
The biggest threat to Jeju’s mermaids, though, are their own remarkable strides: With so many new paths forged before them, young women no longer have to follow the grueling life of a haenyeo to survive. Jen Judge

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