Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Livelihood Vanishing for Sea Women

CHEJU ISLAND, South Korea -- In a centuries-old tradition, women divers plunge to the seabed surrounding this South Korean island to pluck abalone, conches and other seafood.

Unlike their ancestors, today's divers on Cheju Island wear masks and wet suits. But little else has changed and they remain a rare, if fading, symbol of female independence in Korea's traditionally male-dominated society.

Tourists flock to see the divers who work without oxygen tanks in the bays ringing Cheju, off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula.

They can stay below the surface for up to two minutes, combing the ocean floor for seafood to sell at the market or eat at home.

But the divers are dwindling, from 23,000 in 1960 to 5,600 today, and only 30 of them are 29 years old or younger. The younger generation prefers easier work in hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

"I don't blame them. We make little money despite hard work," says Park Bok-ja, 45, who has been diving for more than half her life.

The divers' husbands mostly work at tangerine farms, horse ranches or as fishermen.

There are several theories about why women have dominated diving on Cheju since the 16th century. One is that they can withstand high water pressure better than men. Another is that their body fat allows them to endure cold water for longer periods.

But Park and others say many take several painkillers a day to endure the physical toll.

"When you dive deep, it hurts everywhere," says Kim Il-sun, 52, who works with Park.

The haenyo, or "sea women" in Korean, dive eight hours a day for about half the year in waters up to 13 meters deep. Their average annual income is only about 4 million won ($3,300).

Divers also work along the coast of the Korean peninsula, but Cheju is more suited to the profession because of its warmer weather.

Each of Cheju's 128 beach villages has its own group of diving women that zealously guards its diving zone to prevent fishing boats from depleting marine life. Boats illegally fish in the zones more often these days, divers complain.

Sea pollution is also eating away at the their livelihood: More and more often, the seashells they pick up are dead or empty.

Yet the sea women regulate their fishing, clinging to the custom of working without an oxygen supply. Diving with a tank, they reason, would let them strip clean the source of their sustenance.