Photo: Haenyeo of Jeju-do Island. Credit: Kim Hyeong-chan, Wikipedia Commons.
The number of haenyeo 해녀, a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, has been steadily declining. There are fewer than 4,000 “sea women,” the female divers in Jeju-do Island 제주도 and the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula known for their incredible ability to maneuver underwater to collect shellfish and other seafood. Nearly all of them are over 60 years old; the oldest haenyeo, 98 year old Ra Wal-su 라왈수 of Mara-do Island 마라도, is also the oldest diver in the world.
Now, climate change is posing another challenge. According to the report by Reuters, the rising sea temperature means smaller seaweed beds, home of popular seafood like abalone 전복 and sea cucumbers 해삼. The catches are smaller, and the divers have to risk their life and health by diving deeper to find the fish. Pollution is another issue, as one haenyeo said: “I’m finding more golf balls than sea cucumbers now.”