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Female divers continue into their 60s and beyond

November 26, 2014

Off the southern coast of Korea sits Jeju, a small island that's evolved into a popular tourist destination over the past few decades. However, if you look below the surface of resorts and honeymooners, you can find a group of women who maintain one of the island's most vital industries.

Haenyeo are female divers who explore the depths of the frigid ocean, equipped with just wet suits, flippers and goggles. They jump from boats or the shore to propel to the bottom, can hold their breath underwater for an average of two minutes, and often maintain careers well into their 80s - perfect visions of healthy aging.

The term means "sea woman," a profession that was created in the 18th century, according to The New York Times. Women became responsible for catching conch, octopus and abalone as men left shores for sea adventures and didn't return. The tradition came about when the government started taxing females in abalone, which forced them to dive throughout most of their lives. 

The profession
A big dilemma in Jeju is the aging population of Haenyeo compared to new recruits. The New York Times explained that younger women prefer working in resorts which had brought the number of Haenyeo down 22,000 people in the past fifty years. With only a few thousand experienced divers left, more than 80 percent of the Haenyeo are in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Referred to by the source as "Amazons of Asia," these women catch seafood with their bare hands or spears. Haenyeo are considered a symbol of female strength and independence on the small island. Just this year, an application was submitted to UNESCO to give the diving culture a place on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. 

A photography series
Photographer David Alan Harvey created a series about Haenyeo, which he published on Instagram. The photo-sharing social media platform allowed Harvey to upload pictures and interviews of the divers as he captured the lifestyle.

So far, he's offered a unique snapshot of the Haenyeo culture, particularly with the informative captions. If you see the series, you might stumble upon Kisoon Kim and Kyungyok, a mother-daughter pair, Senior Planet explained. Kim is 65 years old and began diving at age 15, while her daughter is 35 and has only been diving for a few years. Chunsong Kang is 84 years old and regularly spends several hours diving 15 feet deep for creatures and returning to the surface for breath. Choonhwa Ko joined the Haenyeo when she was just 12 years old, and continues working as she approaches age 70.