Real life mermaids

As a sea angler, we know you love the sea, but as much as you love to spend your free time at the water’s edge, it’s unlikely you’d want to be in or on the ocean all the time.

But there are people for whom the sea is more than a hobby, an occupation or a passion; the sea is  their life.

We’re talking real lift mermaids and men, and incredible stories of their oceanic lives. Be prepared to be amazed!

Haenyeo Sea Women of Korea

Haenyo

Image source: Wikimedia
A Korean ‘sea woman’ preparing to dive for fish.

You thought a mermaid was a sea siren whose job was to lure unsuspecting mariners to a watery grave. But while myth and legend make for a colourful tale to tell, real life is stranger than fiction.

On the island of Jeju off the tip of South Korea, early morning sees a sight strange to behold – at the end of a pier, a group of old women in thick wetsuits warm themselves by a fire built from orange boxes. They are “haenyeo”, or “sea women” and they spend their lives skin diving for shellfish and octopus, a hazardous occupation, but one that some of them have pursued for 60 years or more.

Nicknamed the “Amazons of Asia”, the haenyeo are heads of a matriarchal society that dates back at least as far as the 17th century, when punitive taxes on male incomes forced women into the role of bread winner. At their peak, there were tens of thousands of “mermaids” diving the waters of the Korean Strait, but since the 1960s, their numbers have dwindled as young women have opted for safer, warmer jobs. Now only a few thousand mostly elderly haenyeo remain to dive the frigid waters – mermaids soon to pass into history.

Ama of Japan

japanese ama mermaid

Image source: Wikipedia
A Japanese mermaid.

Able to hold their breath for two minutes or more, the Ama of Japan were women and young girls who dived for Oysters and Abalone. Armed with just a mask and flippers, these mermaids of the Pacific would dive over 60 times per session, surfacing for just a few seconds after each foray into the deep.

Diving has existed in Japan as a mainly female occupation for over two thousand years. Unlike us shore fishermen and women with our waterproofs and waders, these women used to dive naked apart from a loincloth – unrestricted movement was seen as a must in the dangerous deep. But after the war, with the development of tourism came pressure to cover up. Later, the women adopted wetsuits to enable to them to spend even more time in the water.

These days, as in Korea, most of the Ama are elderly – some continuing to dive well into their nineties. The lack of women coming into the profession mean the Ama will almost certainly die out within a few years.  

Moken Sea Gypsies

The Andaman Sea off Myanmar is home to the Moken people, otherwise known as the sea gypsies. These water dwelling folk so seldom set foot on land that when they do, they suffer landsickness as a result. The Moken are as close to mermaids and men as it’s possible to get! Sailing throughout the 800 islands of the  Mergui archipelago in their handbuilt wooden houseboats, they only spend significant time ashore during the wild and windy monsoon season.

As you’d expect, the sea gypsies are expert sea fishermen, usually harvesting fish, molluscs and sandworms for their own nourishment, and shells, sea snails and oysters to barter for the fuel and equipment they need. In fact, Moken spend so much time freediving that like the “mermaid” featured in this video, their eyes are adapted to focus underwater!

Sadly the wandering ways of the Moken are under threat as commercial fishing, increased militarisation, oil drilling and pressure to settle impact on their unique way of life. Thankfully there are organisations doing their best to stand up for one of the most incredible peoples on earth – like Project Moken – so do check them out and do what you can to help before it’s too late.