Travel to the secluded Korean islands of Jeju and Udo, and you might see a strange sight. Every morning, thousands of women take to the sea surrounding the islands to hunt for seaweed, abalones, sea urchins, and octopuses. These women, called the haenyo, or Korean Mermaids, dive up to 65 feet for their prizes, using no equipment other than goggles and wetsuits. They make these dives several times a day. And almost all of them are over the age of 60.
Diving senior citizens might seem like an exotic novelty—but to see them for yourself, you need only stop by the nearest scuba instruction center. There, you’ll see proof of a rising trend across the globe: scuba diving seniors. Diving, once thought to be the exclusive province of the young, is now recognized as an all-ages pastime. And scuba instructors are thrilled to see a new world of clients open up.
“Diving instructors shouldn’t be ageist, because diving isn’t ageist,” says Laura Parke, a diving instructor in South Florida. Parke often works with older clients, some of whom are snubbed or scammed by other instructors who don’t believe a senior citizen could ever be fit enough to dive.
Parke relates the story of an elderly woman who was led on by a diving instructor for months before being told she was unfit to dive. The woman came to Parke, who realized she was in great health but had been improperly trained and outfitted, given her age. Parke gave her private lessons and led her on a successful dive—and in return, the client took Parke on a diving trip off the coast of Belize.
“You can be too afraid or too feeble to do scuba,” says Parke, “but you can’t be too old. With the right instruction and enough stamina, anyone can go diving.”
Of course, anybody who ever dons diving gear must first be certain he or she’s in good health. And until not long ago, scientists speculated that seniors could never be well enough to dive very deep. Seniors’ lungs tend to function slightly less well than younger adults’, simply by dint of age. Doctors once speculated that this decline would cause seniors’ lungs to respond poorly to changes in water pressure and to the compressed air of a scuba tank.
“One of the key questions,” says Dr. Heather Frederick of the Duke University Medical Center, “was whether older divers retain carbon dioxide at high levels while diving.” And though they do “experience increased levels of retained carbon dioxide,” those levels are “clinically insignificant to younger subjects.”
“The bottom line,” says Frederick, “is that healthy older divers should be able to continue diving safely.”
There remain, of course, myriad of medical conditions that can prohibit seniors—or anyone else—from scuba diving. A senior who’s experienced heart problems, blood pressure problems, paralysis, or serious surgery should probably refrain from diving. But seniors with mild health issues shouldn’t hold back from trying out the hobby. In fact, given the level of fitness required to dive successfully, they might even benefit from it.
Surprised that seniors are prime candidates for scuba diving? You shouldn’t be: After all, one of the most famous divers of all time continued to pursue the hobby well into his golden years. Jacques Cousteau learned to swim when he was 4 and spent much of life exploring the ocean on ambitious and well-documented diving expeditions. In his later years, Cousteau had trouble walking and even remaining upright—yet he continued to dive with his friends up until his death at the age of 87.
Diving isn’t for everyone. But as more and more people live well past retirement age, many seniors will be looking to take up new hobbies to keep their minds sharp and their bodies fit. And there’s no better way to maintain physical fitness while expanding your horizons than exploring the ocean’s depths. Diving isn’t just for Jacques Cousteau and the Korean Mermaids: It’s for anybody who’s willing to seize the opportunity—young, old, or in between.