Great Big Story

This story originally appeared on fwx.com.

If you shudder at the prospect of going to the grocery store and immediately head for the Seamless app instead, putting on shoes and leaving your house is nothing compared the work the haenyeos of Korea's Jeju island do to get dinner. For centuries, women have gone diving into the waters of the Pacific to forage for conch, urchins, flounder and other sea creatures in order to sustain their families. But as with many age-old traditions, this one is dying out.

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The folks at Great Big Story met up with one of the few remaining "mermaids" who, at 78, is still diving. Kim Ok Ja has been a haenyeo since she was 13, taking up the practice due to a lack of food resources in the area at that time. Only women did the diving, and back then there were dozens of fellow divers making a living off of the sea. The haenyeos learn to hold their breath for minutes at a time and dive with no SCUBA gear or other breathing aparatus. These days there are fewer haenyeo than ever for one simple reason: they're dying of old age. "There needs to be haenyeo in this ocean," Kim insists. "To benefit our country and everyone's lives."

 

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