Situated off the coast of South Korea, Jeju Island is the proud birthplace of an unusual profession that dates back centuries, and is practiced by the Haenyeo women, or the ‘women of the sea’. These free divers scour the black shores of Jeju in search of delicacies from their waters, braving the erratic and unpredictable forces of the ocean as part of their daily routine. Perhaps most impressive of all is the age of these robust swimmers, who Alain Schroeder captures in his striking monochrome portraits—the majority of women engaged in the craft are over the age of 50, and many a few decades older.

Grandma Divers 1. Soon Hwa Kim, 71 years old, comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She has been diving 60 years. She has one son and daughter, but she did not encourage her daughter to follow her path because the work is too hard. She has just put on her homemade weight belt and is preparing to dive despite heavy rain. © Alain Schroeder

The Haenyeo tradition can be traced back to 434 A.D., but it was around the 17th century that the diving was gradually taken over by women, shaping the semi-matriarchal structure of the island. Many families are supported by income brought in by this lucrative fishing industry; men run the household and women provide for the family. The occupation is passed on early from generation to generation, and women are initiated into the culture at a young age. Centuries of accumulated knowledge and understanding of marine life are embedded in the craft—so much so that it is now part of UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Grandma Divers 8. Hyunsuk Oh, 65 from Seongson, shows off a giant abalone, the most precious catch this morning that she brought back in the special pouch that all Haenyeo carry in case of this rare find. While small abalone are abundant and sell well locally, larger specimens are harder to dislodge from the rocks, which often 10 meters down and require the strongest Haenyeo to hold their breath for upwards of two minutes. However, the effort will be well-rewarded, as this delicacy will likely find its way to an upscale neighborhood in Seoul, where diners are willing to spend 50,000 won (about $50) for a mouthful. © Alain Schroeder

The Haenyeo are cause for inspiration in our ecologically uncertain times. The sustainable fishing practice revolves around a respect for the ocean and desire for harmonious co-existence with its rich sealife. Diving without oxygen tanks and hi-tech scuba equipment, the Haenyeo have developed their own methods for navigating the depths of the sea, which includes a breathing technique that allows them to hold their breath underwater for up to two minutes. Physically demanding and dangerous, free-diving is not for the faint of heart. Occupational hazards include facing brutal weather conditions to collect seaweed, abalone, conch and more—all year round.

Grandma Divers 10. Soon-ja Hong of Seongsan comes out of the water holding an octopus. She explains that she and her fellow Haenyeo set traps to catch octopuses which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Today she was lucky to catch this large specimen. Now 69, she is at the peak of her career, it has taken Soon-ja many years to build up her endurance and fine-tune the hunting techniques that enable her to dive most efficiently. But even the most experienced divers must follow the strict rules imposed by the fishing cooperatives, including diving cycles that allow the women to work seven days on and eight days off in order to recuperate.
© Alain Schroeder

Celebrating the prowess of these silver-haired divers, Schroeder photographs them in their thin rubber suits and old goggles, facing the knowledge that these women of the sea risk becoming a profession of the past. “The tradition is slowly fading, as fewer women choose this extremely hazardous profession,” he says. “In a society obsessed with education, the future of this physically arduous activity would appear bleak, and yet, efforts from the government and local communities to preserve and promote this ecological and sustainable lifestyle have generated a renewed interest in the young people, who are disillusioned with urban life and eager to return to their roots. Perhaps it is a renaissance.”

Editor’s Note: We discovered Schroeder’s series when he was selected as a finalist in this year’s LensCulture Portrait Awards. Be sure to check out all the images by other other winners and finalists here.