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.
“I can still manage under the sea,” she said, warming her arthritic body at a fire she built with fruit boxes on a pier while waiting for other women. “My husband had it easy, hardly lifting a finger. Until he died four years ago, he had no complaints against me.”
Ms. Kim, like her mother before her, is a haenyeo, or “sea woman.” For ages, the sea women of Jeju, an island off the southern coast of South Korea, have braved the treacherous waters of the Korea Strait, even during the frigid winters. Using only flippers and goggles — no breathing equipment — they scour the sea bottom for abalone, conch and octopus.
They are, by tradition, women, nicknamed the Amazons of Asia in a custom that has as much to do with the island’s sad history as its geography.
The reversal of traditional gender roles, with women being the chief breadwinners, made the island an outlier in Korea’s patriarchal society.
But the work is hard and dangerous. Since 2009, 40 divers have died, including three this year. Younger women on Jeju, now South Korea’s biggest tourist destination, would rather work in resort hotels and car rental offices than plunge into the cold sea, as some of their mothers and grandmothers still do.
The number of sea women has dwindled to about 4,500, from 26,000 in the 1960s, with 84 percent of them 60 or older.
“Most of the haenyeo will be gone in 20 years unless we have new recruits,” said Yang Hi-bum, a Jeju government official.
For as long as Koreans can remember, sea women have been as emblematic of Jeju as snow-capped Mount Halla at its center. They duck under water more than 100 times a day, grabbing sea creatures barehanded or sometimes with a spear. Resurfacing a minute later, making a plaintive whistle as they exhale, they deposit their catch into a net sack tied to a float.
“Haenyeo were Korea’s first working moms,” said Koh Mi, an editor at the Jeju newspaper Jemin Ilbo and a participant in a nine-year research project on the sea women. “They were a symbol of female independence and strength in Korea.”
So there is much hand-wringing over how to preserve their culture in the face of changes that have turned Jeju from the “island of sea women” into an island of honeymooners in a matter of decades.
This month, South Korea applied to Unesco to add the sea women to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Islanders believe the designation would infuse pride in the tradition, and encourage popular support for preserving it.
Today, the 714-square-mile island is as famous for its citrus orchards as for its pearly beaches, golf courses and esplanades overlooking black cliffs where lava met the sea ages ago. But until farm machinery enabled families to cultivate Jeju’s notoriously rocky soil and tourism gave the island more job opportunities in recent decades, Jeju was among the toughest places to live in South Korea, an outpost where trees were stunted from sea winds and where kings exiled their enemies.
By the 17th century, as men went to sea to fish or row warships and never returned, diving become exclusively women’s work, said Kang Kwon-yong, curator of the government-run Haenyeo Museum. An 18th-century document recorded that officials flogged the women, and even their parents or husbands, when they failed to pay steep taxes in dried abalone, a prized delicacy among Korea’s elite, forcing women to dive in cold water even when pregnant.
The work has always been perilous. The women work long hours in icy water as deep as 40 feet. Old haenyeo ballads speak of “diving with a coffin on the head” or “toiling in the netherworld so our family can live in this one.” The divers pray to sea goddesses for protection, regularly offering them rice, fruit and imitation paper money.
As late as the early 1960s, 21 percent of the island’s women were professional divers, their bounty accounting for 60 percent of Jeju’s fisheries revenue. While brides in other parts of South Korea were expected to provide a dowry, on Jeju the men paid a bride price.
“Diving was the lifeline for the entire family,” said Ku Young-bae, 63, one of 270 sea women from Hado-ri, a cluster of villages on Jeju’s eastern shore, before swimming into the waves recently. “Men are lazy,” she said. “They can’t dive. They are weak under the sea, where it’s really life or death.”
Until recently, sea women from Jeju also worked along the coasts of mainland South Korea.
“We children waited for our mothers to return home from their mainland trips,” said Lim Baek-yeon, 53, head of the Hado-ri sea women’s cooperative. “It meant new clothes and new shoes.”
The divers adhere to a strict hierarchy. Young divers stay clear of the shallow waters where the older and weaker women dive. When the village school needs repairs, they donate a portion of the proceeds of their catch.
Their economic independence contributed to Jeju’s divorce rates, the highest in South Korea. But despite their essential role, the divers were held in low esteem by a society that frowned on women traveling outside their villages and revealing bare skin. Until full-body wet suits became available in the 1970s, they wore homemade cotton suits that showed the thigh and often shoulders.
“Jeju children did not like to admit that their mother was a haenyeo,” said Lee Sun-hwa, a female member of the Jeju Provincial Council, whose mother and grandmother were sea women. “The women always elected their men as chiefs of their villages.”
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.
“My only daughter doesn’t even know how to swim,” she said.