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Jeju’s women divers struggle to preserve dying trade

South Korea's Jeju Island is known not only for its natural beauty, but also women divers called "haenyo". However, their numbers have dwindled as the younger women are reluctant to carry on the tradition.

JEJU: South Korea's Jeju Island is a favourite holiday spot for Koreans and increasingly so for foreign tourists.

Last year, more than 10 million tourists visited the volcanic island known not only for its natural beauty and waterfalls, but also women divers.

Called “haenyo”, the women divers have been around for as long as Koreans can remember.

But their numbers have dwindled as fewer women want to carry on the tradition.

Wearing vests and goggles and without the aid of breathing equipment, those women dive -- sometimes as deep as 25 metres -- to gather clams, abalone, octopus and seaweed.

They are able to hold their breath for about two to three minutes at a time, and when they come back up, they whistle to expel excess carbon dioxide.

Seventy-year-old diver Koh Sa-suk said she has been diving since she was 20.

"I guess it's more difficult as we get older. But there are those over the age of 80 too,” she added.

The oldest woman diver is now 86 years old and, about 84 per cent of the women divers are 60 or older.

With younger women reluctant to carry on the tradition, the number of haenyo has dwindled to about 4,500 from 26,000 in the 1960s.

Thus, the proud heritage of those women -- often referred to as the mermaids of Jeju -- may soon be lost.

That is a sad fate for Korea's first working mums, who have held a special place in the country's largely patriarchal society.

Koh said: "These days fathers work too. But in the old days, they looked after the children while the women divers went to work. "

Koh has continued to work, and she proudly shows her catch after being underwater for about two to three hours.

To help supplement their income, the women divers sell their catch directly at places full of tourists.

Tourists make it a point to eat at such places, knowing that they are not only getting fresh seafood, but also helping to support the women.

It is much needed help as the divers do not earn as much now.

Lee Han-young, head of Jeju Haenyo Cultural Heritage Preservation, said: "In the past, the seafood caught by the women divers were exported at high prices to Japan.

“But these days there's less export because of the weak yen, and the changing taste buds of younger Japanese."

It is not just their livelihoods the divers are trying to preserve, but their culture as well.

At Sunrise Peak -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- they hold performances which tourists enjoy.

One visitor said: "I think it is a really tough job. But I do think that Koreans should try to preserve this. I hope that I can come back here maybe in 10, 15 years with my kids, and tell them 'Hey, I saw this here.' and I hope that they will still keep it going."

Experts predict that the tradition of the women divers could disappear within the next two decades, so performances like those are all the more important in preserving the haenyo culture. 

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