Haenyeo, the Sea Women of Korea

By Fanny Wong, New York.

Orange pumpkin-like buoys bob in the water off the island of Jeju, 55 miles off the tip of the South Korea peninsula. Baskets attached to them wait for their owners. The sea women, in groups of ten or more rise to the surface and make a distinctive whistle…“Hoowi, hoowi!” It’s an ancient technique to expel carbon dioxide from their lungs and to alert one another of their presence. They’ve been under water for 30 seconds or longer. It’s time to breathe. Everyone is accounted for. No accidental death today.

A Haenyeo Diver. Illustration by Nina A. Forsberg.

The women wade ashore or climb onto a waiting boat, hauling their baskets of the day’s underwater harvest. They take off their old-fashioned headlight-shaped scuba masks to reveal lined and weathered faces. These women are old! Who are they? What do they do underwater?

For hundreds of years, the sea women, known as the haenyeo, dive as deep as forty feet to harvest seaweed, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, octopus, shellfish and abalone from the ocean floor. They free dive without an oxygen tank, equipped only with fins, gloves, and a belt of lead weights to assist diving. They use different simple tools; such as a small harpoon for piercing fish, a sickle for collecting seaweed, a long hoe for prying abalone of rocks.

Jeju is a 700 square miles island of volcanic rock and soil, off the southwestern coast of southwest Korea. It has a beautiful coastline and is listed on UNESCO’s World Nature Heritage. Windy and rocky, there isn’t much land for productive farming, except for mandarin orange farms. But the sea provides an alternative farm.

Life of the haenyeo is hard. They harvest from five to seven hours a day, about 18 days per month, depending on the weather and tide conditions. It was only in the 1970s that the government subsidized wetsuits, which protect them from the cold water. The women used to dive in loose cotton clothing and could stay in the water up to an hour during the winter months. They had to sit by a fire to dry off before jumping back into the water. Wearing wet suits, now they can earn more by staying longer in the water, and to dive into old age.

Underwater is a dangerous place to make a living. The divers must be careful not to push too far for that prized abalone. Deprived of oxygen, a diver can suffer a heart attack. She must know when to have enough breath to come up slowly, and perhaps give up a precious find stuck under a rock. One side effect of longer dives is decompression sickness. They also contend with dangers, such as jellyfish, poor weather, big fish and even an occasional shark.

Most of the divers are old, with the oldest in their eighties, and even nineties. The average age is seventy. These elderly women learn from a young age to understand water pressure, oxygen level in their lungs and resurfacing distance. The girls as young as eleven start to learn to dive in shallow water, then in more challenging depths. Some women have dived all through pregnancy and given birth on a boat! This job used to be handed down from mother to daughter, but now, the young women prefer a more comfortable life in the island’s two cities or on the mainland. From more than 14,000 in the 1970s, there are fewer than 2500 haenyeo today. Some women abandoned the dangerous sea diving in old age. They and the ones who died were not replaced.

The haenyeo culture relies on cooperation and hierarchy. The beginners and the older women belong to the bottom level of divers, the hagun. The middle level junggun diver can hold her breath between 40 seconds to a minute. The top-level sangun diver can work the most difficult areas, dive deepest and may be able to hold her breath up to two minutes. The more experienced offer their guidance to the less experienced. It can take a new diver five years to be fully competent.

The women generally sell their catch through a fishery cooperative in each village. There are about 100 cooperatives. Each cooperative has its own regulations about the boundary of the fishing ground, qualification and catching methods. When a problem arises, the haenyeo get together in a form of town hall meeting to make decisions everyone understands and accepts. The community spirit is strong. Before and after a day’s work, they change their cloths in the traditional bulteok, an open-air circle marked by a 4 feet high stones wall, with a fire in the center. Recently built bulteoks are cement buildings with showers and heated dressing rooms. They chat about personal matters and issues related to work. The conversation is affectionate and warm.

A diver earns about the equivalent U.S. $12,500 a year. That’s not a lot of money for their hard work. A second job farming on small plots of land supplement their income. But they are proud to be their families’ providers. With no education, the women had little choice but follow their mothers’ footsteps. Now, they want their children and grandchildren to get a good education, even to go to a university.

Where are then men? Some elderly husbands wait on shore for their wives to return. They help lug the heavy loads onto land, help weigh and sort the catch. It wasn’t always this way. Men from Jeju harvested shellfish as far back as 1460, as mentioned in a court document. Why the change? One explanation is that in the 17th century, the men were taken away to fight Korea’s foreign wars. Another explanation is that women’s body fat enabled them to endure the cold water better. Diving for seafood became exclusively female and remains so today.

There is some stigma attached to their work. In modern South Korea, women are generally prized for being delicate. The divers are anything but delicate. They have grit, physical and mental stamina. They talk loudly on land because the build-up of air pressure in their ears means that noises are muffled. Not lady-like at all!

But, the haenyeo has gained respect in their efforts to protect the marine ecosystem. They are marine specialist by experience. Knowing the cycle of marine life, they do not over harvest. For example, abalone and conch are caught from October to June, sea urchins from May to July and sea slugs during the winter season. They don’t take anything under-sized. Even different seaweeds are harvested at specific times of the year. They are lauded for their eco-friendly methods and community involvement in managing their practices.

Normally in South Korea, men dominate, but not in Jeju. For centuries, they had high status and independence in their community. They are the breadwinners, take care of the children and make household decisions. In the male-dominated culture, they were modern before their time. Even today, when many elderly South Koreans over 65 are poor, these elderly women’s financial independence is remarkable.

The haenyeo’s legacy is not just economic. It’s social. It’s cultural. Every February in the lunar calendar, the haenyeo hold a ceremony in honor of the God of the wind, Yeongdeung. He visits Jeju Island on the first day of February. In mid-February, they send a small straw boat loaded with offerings out to sea to accompany him as he departs Jeju for the year. The women pray to the God, believing that he helps them hold their breath underwater and to keep them safe. They also pray at shrines.

Interest in the haenyeo has grown. In 2006, the Haenyeo Museum opened. It explains the history and culture through models of their traditional homes; displays boats, tools, masks and diving wear. Underwater photographers published books about them. In 2015, the Jeju government began to help pay for their accident and medical insurance. In 2016, UNESCO awarded the divers a Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation, recognition they long deserved.

But the haenyeo themselves are pessimistic about the future. Tourism is increasing and generates more revenue than the diving catch. With few young women willing to go into the profession, the culture will eventually die out. Moreover, they witness the effect of climate change in the ocean. Pollution is reducing the amount of and quality of edible sea life.

How can the haenyeo tradition be preserved in the age of modernity? Modifications can make life of the haenyeo easier and more attractive to the next generation, just as the wetsuits made a lot of difference. Perhaps something mechanical can help them lug the heavy baskets of wet seaweed and algae onto shore. A full basket of seaweed can weigh as much as 65 pounds. Better medical intervention can prevent and lessen the physical toil to their bodies. Some of the ailments include headaches, tinnitus, digestive problems and increased risk of strokes.

Meanwhile these tough women who ride motorcycles to get around remain graceful underwater ballerinas in the silence of the deep. They continue to be Jeju’s most valued treasures.

By Fanny Wong, Asian American author, New York.

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