They are the Haenyeo (해녀)- the women of the sea. You will find these grandmothers in the frigid waters off Jeju Island at all times of the year, in search of mollusks, shellfish, octopus, seaweed- anything that will command a reasonable price at the market. They can hold their breaths for up to three minutes, dive as deep as 30 meters, contending daily with hazardous weather, poisonous jellyfish, and sharks. And when they return to land with their catch (men still refer to it as “gathering” or “harvesting”), these indomitable, fiercely-independent women must navigate a rigidly Confucian ecosystem, with archaic ideas about the role of women in a society engineered by men. In the semi-matriarchal haenyeo community, the women are the breadwinners, and it is their husbands who stay home, cook, care for the children. In South Korea, as almost anywhere else with outmoded sensibilities around gender and sex, this has always been equivalent to losing face.
This is the last generation of the haenyeo (almost all of them are in their fifties to late eighties.) At their peak in the 1960s they numbered more than 25,000. Today, there are less than 5,000 plying their trade. It is a practise and way of life in decline. But there is a legacy that will not be denied them. In this small community, in that part of the world, challenged for centuries by every accepted societal norm, these women of the sea have always ruled.