February 15, 2005
Cheju Island divers

I first heard about the women divers of Korea's Cheju island when I visited in 2003; today's NY Times has a nice overview of their history and the news that the lifestyle may disappear due to its success.

The girls begin going to sea at age 8 or 10, first picking up seaweed near the shore. The best divers can plunge 40 feet deep and hold their breath for over two minutes. (To avoid overfishing, scuba gear remains illegal.)

With a flat tool attached to one wrist, the sea women try to dislodge abalone from under rocks. Occasionally, though, the abalone clamp down on the tool and trap one of them underwater. At least one sea woman dies every year while diving.

With the number of sea women declining, and with tourism giving Cheju men more opportunities, it is unclear what will happen to their daughters' status in their communities and home. What is clear, though, is the pervasive sense that the end of something is near.
Posted by Bill Stilwell at February 15, 2005 07:52 AM
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