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The Fascinating Female Divers of Jeju Island

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

Jeju Island's ‘haenyeo’ are considered to be South Korea’s first working mothers, breaking the traditionally patriarchal societal norms to be the breadwinners for their families.

Jeju Island's ‘haenyeo’ are considered to be South Korea’s first working mothers, breaking the traditionally patriarchal societal norms to be the breadwinners for their families.

The Working Mothers of South Korea

Jeju Island's ‘haenyeo’ are considered to be South Korea’s first working mothers, breaking the traditionally patriarchal societal norms to be the breadwinners for their families.

The term haenyeo refers to the island women who earn their living by diving into the sea to pluck abalone, clam, seaweed, sea cucumber, sea urchin, and squid from the bottom of the strait. These women have been doing this job for the past 1700 years and are considered an aberration in a typically male-dominated Korean society. These women established diving to be an exclusively female occupation.

In the 1970s the country experienced a boom in the export of seafood and the sea women became quite prosperous because of the demand. But this also led to their focus shifting towards providing better education and career prospects to their children. As a result, a new generation of women started slowly abandoning the profession. The number of haenyeo has dwindled over time as the younger generations began to look at other more lucrative employment opportunities.

As a Hawaii-based professional free diver, Kimi Werner shares the opinion of one of the haenyeo:

“Yeah, that makes us sad, but at the same time, we chose not to pass this down to our daughters. We chose to use the money we earned to get our daughters educated so that they would have more opportunities [than we had]’.”

As of 2016, there were less than 3,000 haenyeo left, with most of the women over the age of 60. Still, these women continue the tradition and do this perilous work proudly. In fact, their strong work ethic and contribution to society have also earned them a mention in the UNESCO list of Korea’s intangible cultural heritage in 2016.

As of 2016, there were less than 3,000 haenyeo left with most of the women over the age of 60.

As of 2016, there were less than 3,000 haenyeo left with most of the women over the age of 60.

History of Haenyeo (Sea Women)

The story of the haenyeo, or ‘sea women’ goes back to the 1600s. During that time, men were mostly away from home due to war and conquest, and women were left behind to manage the family and the communities in general.

Gradually the onus on livelihood was put on the haenyeo who became Korea’s first 'working moms.' By the 18th century, female divers outnumbered the males and diving soon became an exclusively female profession.

The haenyeo became the primary breadwinners for their families and became an integral part of Jeju's economy. The age-old gender rules completely reversed with men looking after the family while the women managed the finances by diving and harvesting seafood by hand from the ocean floor.

How They Dive

Now comes the interesting part.

Most of them are over the age of 60 and they have never used any modern diving equipment in their lives. They descend up to twenty meters in freezing cold water and stay for more than six hours a day without any equipment, holding their breath for over two minutes at a time.

Although a typical dive might last around two minutes and take them as deep as ten meters underwater, the women use no breathing equipment even now. Wearing old-fashioned headlight-shaped scuba masks, they strap lead weights around their waists to enable them to sink faster.

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A round flotation device called a tewak is kept harnessed at the surface of the water with a net hanging beneath it to collect the harvest. Some use a sharp tool to dig conch, abalone, and other creatures from the crevices on the seafloor.

As each woman comes to the surface to fill the harvest, she also uses an ancient breathing technique to expel carbon dioxide from her lungs before diving again. There is little doubt that these women are remarkably strong but what is even more amazing is that they are all doing this strenuous physical activity above the age of 60 years with the oldest even approaching 90. And the ability to free dive and stay in freezing waters for more than six hours straight is no mean achievement.

There's even a Haenyeo Museum in Jeju today and tourists visit the picturesque island just to see them in action.

There's even a Haenyeo Museum in Jeju today and tourists visit the picturesque island just to see them in action.

The Rigorous Process of Becoming a Haenyeo

Becoming a haenyeo also is not an easy task. A new recruit has to earn a ‘yes’ vote from every woman in her village. It can take up to five years for any woman to reach an expert level after crossing various levels like Sanggun (novice), junggun (middle level), and hagun (expert level). A hagun can reach up to depths of more than 30 feet and can stay more than two minutes underwater at a time.

Yes, the tradition is dying, particularly as the newer generations have decided to take jobs in cities, but the haenyeo is still one of the most honoured and respected women on the island.

Yes, the tradition is dying, particularly as the newer generations have decided to take jobs in cities, but the haenyeo is still one of the most honoured and respected women on the island.

A Position of Honour and Respect

Yes, the tradition is dying, particularly as the newer generations have decided to take jobs in cities, but the haenyeo is still one of the most honored and respected women on the island.

Their strong work ethic and the decisive role they have played in society have given them international acclaim. In addition to the haenyeo becoming inscribed on the UNESCO list of Korea’s intangible cultural heritage in 2016, there's even the Haenyeo Museum in Jeju today and tourists visit the picturesque island just to see them in action.

As one haenyeo, Moon Bokhui says: “Wherever I go, I tell people that I’m haenyeo, proudly.”

Jeju island is a very beautiful island with pristine beaches and breathtaking scenery all around.

Jeju island is a very beautiful island with pristine beaches and breathtaking scenery all around.

How to Reach Jeju Island

  • By Air: Jeju island has its own international airport that is located about 4 km (2½ miles) from Jeju City. You can fly to Jeju directly from Daegu, Busan, and Seoul via Korean Airlines, Asiana Airlines, and Jeju Air. The Jeju airport has an airport tourist center where helpful information is provided to tourists about hotels and places for sightseeing in Jeju island.
  • By Ferry: You can also travel to Jeju via passenger ships operating from various ports in South Korea. Frequent boats operate from major cities like Busan, Incheon, and Mokpo. The best and probably the most convenient way is to travel from Busan domestic terminal. Most of the boats typically leave at 7 pm and reach by the next morning to Jeju island.
Besides visiting the brave Haenyeo in action, there are quite a lot of other things you can do on the picturesque Jeju island

Besides visiting the brave Haenyeo in action, there are quite a lot of other things you can do on the picturesque Jeju island

Other Things to Do a Jeju Island

Besides visiting the brave haenyeo in action, there are quite a lot of other things you can do on the picturesque Jeju island.

  • Go Biking on Gapa Island: Gapa island is just 5 km from Jeju island and is one of the best places to go biking in the midst of nature.
  • Explore Hamdeok Beach: Hamdeok Beach is a perfect place to seek solitude in the lap of nature.
  • Visit Waterfalls: Jeju island has numerous waterfalls and the most popular is the Jeongbang Waterfall, which is breathtakingly beautiful.
  • Go Trekking to Mount Halla: If you are of the adventurous type, your trip to Jeju would not be complete without trekking all the way up to the top of Mount Halla, the tallest mountain on the island. At the top, the breathtaking view of the island is worth all the effort.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

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