HADO-RI, South Korea — On a recent morning, as she has for 60 years, Kim Eun-sil carried her diving gear to a rocky beach on the eastern side of this island to spend the day free-diving in water more than 20 feet deep to harvest seafood by hand.
Ms. Kim, 80, figures she can work a few more years at a job women here have done for centuries but which now is fast disappearing.
The sea women have partly been victims of their own hard work. The introduction of wet suits encouraged them to dive deeper and for longer hours, resulting in overharvesting and declining incomes and health. The seaside shelters where they gather before entering the water are strewn with empty bottles of painkillers and anti-seasickness drugs.
To help keep the tradition alive, the Jeju government pays for their wet suits and subsidizes their medical and accident insurance. Their government-financed shelters are now equipped with heated floors and hot-water showers.
The sea women have also regulated themselves — imposing voluntary no-harvest seasons, no-diving zones and monthly limits on the number of diving days — to sustain the profession.
But Ms. Kim, who raised five children and paid her husband’s college tuition by diving, says she will be the last haenyeo in her family.
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