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Meet South Korea's Free-Diving Grannies

By now, you've likely heard of South Korea's young and (mostly) attractive foodporn stars. Mukbang is an internet sensation these days, as are a plethora of other odd Korean cultural phenomena.

But away from the digital age, on the tiny island of Jeju off the country's southern coast, are a badass group of grannies who free-dive for shellfish in the icy Korea Strait.

Known as haenyeo, or “sea women”, these Jeju natives are a fast-disappearing national treasure in South Korea. According to food and travel magazine Saveur, Jeju's middle-aged women trudge out to sea in full scuba gear everyday and dive for hours in water as deep as 40 feet before returning to shore to clean and prep their catch.

However, as the younger generation fails to replace Jeju's aging crop of current haenyeo, the tradition may be gone soon, reports the New York Times.

“Most of the haenyeo will be gone in 20 years unless we have new recruits,” Jeju government official Yang Hi-bum told the Times.

Haenyeo began diving for sea urchins, abalone and conch in the 1600s after Jeju men left home to work on fishing boats or row warships. By the following century, their work was so much a part of local culture that haenyeo were often forced to dive while pregnant, as Korean officials of the day levied steep taxes on the Jeju women, which they were required to pay in dried abalone, a delicacy at the time.

By local estimates, 84% of Jeju's haenyeo are over the age of 60. Still, South Korea sees the value in preserving this unusual tradition: a museum on the island honors its divers, while government subsidies pay for their wet suits, as well as heated floors and hot water showers in their shelters. The haenyeo, too, have made efforts at self-preservation, limiting their number of diving days each month, among other things.

However even with these measures in place, this may be the last generation of haenyeo. Kim Eun-sil, an 80-year-old sea woman who still ventures into the Korea Strait herself, raised five kids and funded her husband's university studies by diving for shellfish. When Eun-sil stops, she will be the last haenyeo in her family.

Eun-sil told the New York Times: “My only daughter doesn’t even know how to swim.”

[Photos via The New York Times]

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