Lonely Planet Writer

The extraordinary lives of South Korea's Mermaids of Jeju captured in evocative photo essay

Diving thirty metres below the surface of the sea with only basic equipment and able to hold their breath for as long as three minutes – the famous Haenyeo of South Korea are some of the world’s most remarkable women. Now, their extraordinary lives scouring the sea for octopus, sea slugs, and oysters have been immortalised in a special exhibition by a French photographer.

The famous Haenyeo of South Korea. Image by José Jeuland

José Jeuland, a former professional triathlete, spent months getting to know the women and gaining their trust so that they would become comfortable around his camera. His interest in the women, often called the Mermaids of Jeju, had originally been sparked when he was searching for a trail race and came across one to be held on their island home.

The women fish for octopus and oysters. Image by José Jeuland

“I then proceeded to search for images of Jeju and came across a picture of a woman wearing a diving suit,” he told Lonely Planet. “Later, I learned that she was a Haenyeo. The more information I gathered about the Haenyeo, the more I fell in love with the heritage of Jeju. The story of these women is very interesting – their culture, their life, their character, their age, their skills … I was fascinated by [the] resilience of the Haenyeo in the face of adversity. Despite getting on in years, the Haenyeo faithfully continue to ply their trade.”

The women dive beneath the surface without breathing equipment. Image by José Jeuland

Before he began – other Korean photographers had suggested the project might be difficult saying the women did not like having their pictures taken, and would be uncomfortable with somebody not from their country. “Upon reaching Jeju, the first thing I did was to purchase a map and rent a scooter,” he said. “During three visits to Jeju, I was on my own and did not have anyone assisting me. I enjoyed the independence as well as the freedom to ride around the island on my scooter while keeping a lookout for the Haenyeo. I found the language barrier to be a challenge at times but I overcame by using sign language to communicate. Some of the Haenyeo were welcoming while others were reluctant to interact with me [but] I made an effort to get to know them better.

A mermaid of Jeju Image by José Jeuland

“Many times after the Haenyeo returned from diving with their nets heavy and filled with seafood, I would put aside my camera to help them lug their catch from the water back to shore. As the days passed, the Haenyeo were more welcoming and our relationship grew stronger.” During his three trips, José shot pictures from land, from a boat, while submersed in water, underwater, and using a drone.  The fruits of the project are now on display at a special exhibition at the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore where José lives. You can also see more of his work from around the world on his website.