When I was a little girl, I used to dream of mermaids. I would lie in bed, fantasizing about life in the ocean and what it must be like for them to swim among the kelp and fish in an elaborate underwater world. But little did I know that they existed all along the shores of Jeju, a small island off the southern coast of South Korea. While they are not mythical ocean princesses, they are a community of female free divers called Haenyeo (Sea Women).
Despite many Haenyeo being well into their golden years, they dive up to 10 meters below the surface without the help of oxygen tanks or modern diving equipment; and they do so in the most basic of diving suits, providing very little protection from the icy waters of the South China Sea. The first records of Haenyeo date to 1629, a whopping 340 years before they exchanged their mulsojungi (cotton clothes) for rubber diving suits in the ‘70s. They gather shellfish such as abalone and sea urchins, kelp, octopus and other sea creatures to sell for food utilizing only a knife or their bare hands. Thanks to their vast knowledge of marine life, they’ve been able to hone in on the best time of year for diving. It’s resulted in a rigorous harvest season lasting 90 days, during which they dive for seven hours at a time and communicate with each other underwater through high pitched whistles.
Highly revered in their communities, they are known fondly as “mothers of the sea” and “warriors against the sea.” The women are categorized according to their level of experience into three groups: hagun, junggun, and sanggun. The sanggun, being the most experienced, offer their guidance to the others, and teach the younger divers the art of breathing underwater called sumbisori. The women are inseparable lifetime companions, and everything they gather, they share evenly between themselves. They support each other through pregnancies, illnesses, and family crises.
As I sat on the boulders by the water beneath the Seongsan crater in Jeju, my first encounter with the Haenyeo was their song. The sound emerged from the empty seaside restaurant where they were preparing for their dive, and the music of the women filled the bay. Before a dive, the sea women say their prayers in a shamanistic ritual to Jamsugut, the goddess of the sea, and ask for a safe dive and plentiful catch. As they emerged from the shack, they continued singing and united in a small dance by the waterfront.
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The women have an elevated status in society in an otherwise patriarchal South Korea and are often the primary breadwinners of their families. There is no clear reason why diving became a female-dominated profession. Some explanations include a significant number of men dying in deep-sea fishing accidents or war. Others are physiological; women’s fat reserves give them a higher shivering threshold than men and make them more resistant to the island’s cold waters. Traditionally, so many families depended on the income of the Haenyeo that a semi-matriarchal society developed in Jeju. On Mara, a small island off the coast of Jeju, sea diving was the sole source of income, and men would often take care of children. An example of Jeju’s unique gender roles could be seen in the payment of dowry to the family of the bride, a reversal of the customs in mainland South Korea.
In recent years, the Haenyeo culture has declined due to increased industrialization, new education and work opportunities for girls, and increased environmental degradation of Jeju Island. The Haenyeo culture was assigned to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2016 due to its unique history and the rapid decline of female divers. The elevated status of the Haenyeo culture due to the UNESCO listing has brought a new tourist industry and increased protection of the women in the industry. Still, numbers are declining. At the peak of the Haenyeo, over 23,000 women worked in the diving industry, making up nearly 80% of Jeju Island’s fishing industry. In the 70s, 31% of the female divers were 30 years or younger, and only 14% over 50. As of 2014, over 98% of the Haenyeo were more than 50 years old.
The Haenyeo are extraordinary women, and their commitment to each other, their love for the sea, and their fearlessness give me courage. I realize the Haenyeo are better than the mermaids I dreamt of as a child. They are real, hardworking women who defy social expectations beyond the imagination. If you ever hear a child speaking of mermaids, tell them they’re real, and they can be found among the Sea Women of South Korea.