Over 60, Under the Sea

The Sea

The waters around the Jeju islands in South Korea are filled with sleek black shapes that occasionally come up for air with a squealing sound. They are the Haenyo, a tribe of over 4000 elderly women who dive for a living. It is generally believed that they first began to dive as a way of evading taxes.

The waters around the Jeju island were rich in exotic marine life, but the law stated that any man who fished there had to pay taxes to the state. The lawmakers forgot to mention anything about  women, and that's how the islands' biggest industry was born. Over the years, it brought prosperity to the island and created a unique social structure where the women were the chief contributors to the household income, and consequently the heads of the family.

When the Haenyo are under water, they seem to posess special powers - they can hold their breath for up to 2 minutes, and can easily achieve depths of up to 20 metres without oxygen. But outside, they seem to have the same concerns that worry the elderly all around the world. For the newer generation's reluctance to take up such a physically demanding job means that the current generation of divers, who are well into their 60s, will probably be the last. And as the effect of spending decades weighed down with iron ballast catches up with their bodies, intangible aspects of the Haenyo cuture, such as the songs that the women sing on their way to the diving sites may soon be lost forever.

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