Lee Jin-man, Associated Press
Lee Myung-ja, top, swims with a friend to collect turban shells and abalones south of Seoul, South Korea. Lee, 63, is among a dwindling number of women carrying on the centuries-old tradition.

GWIDEOK, South Korea — Lee Myung-ja wields a sharpened metal prod as she prepares to take another plunge into the clear ocean waters. Lead weights around her waist will help her reach the sea floor 65 feet below the surface.

She lacks one standard item of diving equipment: an oxygen tank.

Lee, 63, is among a dwindling number of Korean women carrying on a centuries-old tradition. Known as haenyeo, which literally translates as "sea women," they hold their breath up to two minutes as they pry abalone or gather seaweed from the ocean floor.

As Lee and the others look forward to retirement, however, their daughters are choosing to remain firmly on land. Earning a living in the water has become less lucrative due to declining seafood prices and harvests.

Some 5,400 haenyeo work on Jeju Island, down from a peak of 23,000 in the 1960s. Of those, more than 90 percent are older than 50, according to experts and government statistics. Lee has four daughters, all grown and married, and none has followed her arduous path.

"We are the last generation of haenyeo," she said.

Officials on this oval-shaped island, 60 miles off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, are trying to save the haenyeo tradition. A new training center is planned and they are offering residents and visitors the chance to share brief swims with haenyeo.

The tradition dates back to the 18th century. Men on Jeju once dove with the women too, but it was about that time when it began to fall solely to women, said Yoo Chul-in, an anthropology professor at Jeju National University who studies haenyeo.

The reason for the change is not clear — the idea of men and women swimming together in tight-fitting suits may have been far too scandalous for the conservative Chosun dynasty that then ruled Korea, Yoo said.

Women as breadwinners contrasts with the rest of Korea's starkly patriarchal society. The haenyeo of Jeju even led the island's resistance to Japan during its 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula.

Japan also has a tradition of women divers off its southern coasts, known as "ama," but the Koreans insist theirs are more hardy as they swim year-round.

Tough as they are, it's a dangerous and debilitating avocation.

Haenyeo are taught to exhale rapidly when they surface, to expel carbon dioxide from their lungs. Still, many suffer from decompression sickness from the gas bubbles that form in the body during rapid ascents. The bubbles cause sore joints, headaches and other problems. Haenyeo commonly take painkillers before work.

Women now have more career choices in less dangerous fields such as tourism on Jeju, a honeymoon resort for Koreans that also attracts foreigners to its beaches, waterfalls and casinos.

Another problem is that the haenyeo have been viewed as of low social status, holding a job only the poor and uneducated would choose.

Hoping to save the haenyeo, the first training center is opening in February, in a village on Jeju's northwestern shore.

Up to 30 students will take a six-month course before joining one of the village fishing societies that regulate the coastlines, said Ko Kyung-dae, the official behind the project. Already, a dozen women have signed up.

Ahead of the course, Ko is boosting interest in the divers by offering a "Haenyeo Experience," where people can spend 30 minutes in shallow waters with haenyeo as teachers.

Park Ji-hae, a 24-year-old tourism student, said her mother-in-law is a Jeju diver and she wanted to see if she has what it takes to be a haenyeo.

"I want to carry on the tradition, but I'm not sure if I can learn to do it," she said.

She dove with a couple of dozen students and visitors — both men and women — joined by six haenyeo at the first such outing last month in a shallow harbor at low tide, where the waters had been seeded with conch.

Proudly displaying a small abalone she also found, Park said she enjoyed her time in the water and would ask her mother-in-law to teach her more.

Lee, the veteran haenyeo who was among those coaching the novices, started her work at the age of 17 after being recruited by a company on the Korean mainland for training. She returned later to dive on her home island of Jeju.

She does not know how long she can hold her breath because she never bothered to count. When asked how deep she dives, Lee simply stretched her arms more than a yard wide and said she can dive five or six times that far.

Lee complained of her aching head and ears, a painful legacy from decades of diving. She also said profits were down as seafood around Jeju has become more scarce due to overfishing and pollution.

Prices have dropped because of abalone farms, noted Ko. Still, he said a large, natural abalone caught in deep waters by a haenyeo can fetch more than $100.

Lee's 67-year-old husband Hong Shin-pyo, a fisherman, said the family now earns more from the leek and broccoli they grow in fields behind their home.

Despite the difficulties, Lee boasts she will keep diving until she is 80 — a proposition that draws a chuckle and concern from her husband.

As another island day draws to a close, Lee's work is not yet done. She sets out to tend to the family's crops while the sunset casts its orange and pink patina over the nearby shore.