In December of 2018, Peter Ash Lee traveled to Jeju Island, where he photographed an extraordinary group of women known as the Haenyo. For centuries, these remarkable individuals fearlessly dove into the sea, harvesting seafood to sustain their families and preserve the cultural heritage of Jeju Island.
“The intriguing link between the Haenyo and the semi-matriarchal family structure of Jeju Island,” writes Lee, “is at the core of this story. Through generations, this island has been a stronghold of female strength and resilience, and the Haenyo embody this powerful heritage. As primary breadwinners, they challenge traditional gender norms in a society where men historically held positions of power.
However, many of these indomitable women, mostly now in their 60s and 70s, face the reality of being the last of their kind. I spoke at length with one particular Haenyo, the youngest on the island, who referred to herself as “the last mermaid.” She hailed from a three-generation family of divers, and her mother still led their team of skilled Haenyo. However, their legacy is at risk as the demanding nature of their profession discourages new generations from embracing this ancient way of life.
Moreover, the impact of global warming has cast a shadow over the Haenyo’s future. The once-abundant seafood they relied upon for sustenance has dwindled, as rising waters and warmer temperatures disrupt the delicate marine ecosystem. Moreover, venomous creatures like sea snakes from foreign waters now lurk in the once-familiar seas due to climate change and its far-reaching consequences. The Haenyo’s story is more than a glimpse into their history; it serves as a poignant reminder of how climate change can impact livelihoods and cultures alike.
By honoring the legacy of the Haenyo, we commit ourselves to a shared responsibility – to protect and cherish the world’s diverse cultural heritages and natural wonders. Their unique way of life, wisdom, and traditions should not fade into oblivion but serve as a guiding light for future generations.”
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