Photographs by David Alan Harvey
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The Haenyeo divers in South Korea.
Photographs by David Alan Harvey

Instants: South Korea’s Haenyeo Free Divers

In our new series “Instants,” the Proof staff brings you a snapshot of recent dispatches from the @natgeo Instagram feed. Follow us to experience more from National Geographic on Instagram.

Since his first magazine story in 1973, photographer David Alan Harvey has been scouring the world to capture the best moments for National Geographic. With over 40 stories under his belt, Harvey is one of National Geographic‘s most seasoned and hardest working photographers.

He also works tirelessly to share and fund the work of emerging photographers through burn magazineburn magazine, which launched in 2008.

Harvey is currently working on a black and white photo essay in South Korea on the Haenyeo, a group of female free divers. He plans on curating an exhibition and photo book from this work.

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The now famous Haenyeo from Jeju Island, South Korea get ready to jump from a fast moving boat into the sea and free dive down perhaps 50 ft in search of a variety of delicacy shellfish. These 60-80 year old women have been working together like this since they were teenagers and can hold their breath in the deep for around two minutes. I am amazed every morning these days more and more at these strong women and the boat disembarking resembles a precision military SEAL operation! It’s clearly hard physical work and yet the women seem happy and are constantly joking and laughing with each other. They are highly respected in their communities. This will be the last generation of Haenyeo. The young now seek another life. I am honored to be in their presence.

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I am shooting right now a black and white essay on the Haenyeo. These are the women free divers harvesting various shellfish along the rocky coast. These women range in age from late fifties to early eighties. A dying breed. Like farming, the younger generation just isn’t interested.

Abandoned bicycle, Jeju Island, South Korea

Choonhwa Ko, 67, has been free diving for 50 years in the waters of Jeju Island, South Korea. She can even now hold her breath for over two minutes and go 30 feet down in search of abalone, squid, and conch. It’s a dangerous job. Two Haenyeo died yesterday at sea in the area where I am shooting. Still the Haenyeo are a lively cheerful bunch where a sense of destiny prevails.

At the other end of these swim fins is a 76 year old woman. Diving for abalone on Jeju Island, South Korea. She is in a full on rubber wetsuit and has a line to the float which holds her bag net perhaps full with 40 pounds of shellfish after six hours in the sea. Koreans in general are a hardy breed to say the least, yet none more stalwart than these Haenyeo.

Traffic mirror, Jeju Island, South Korea

Testing the Filson Harvey Messenger bag in Venice.

Follow David Alan Harvey on Twitter and Instagram.