Jeju Haenyeo — Freediving Women of the Sea
South of the Korean peninsula lies a rocky island dominated by Korea’s largest mountain, Hallasan. In the ocean surrounding the island, you can find one of the most hardcore groups of freedivers in the world: the haenyeo, or sea women. The island’s diving heritage goes back thousands of years, and since the 17th century, the diving community has been dominated by some seriously tough women.
The haenyeo of Jeju island stay underwater for about a minute each dive, and they can perform hundreds of dives a day in depths up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) deep without any kind of breathing apparatus. As they break the surface of the water, they release a unique whistle, drop their catch into a floating net, and return to the ocean floor.
It’s a wonder that an island that was previously considered barely livable and surrounded by cold waters could spawn one of the world’s coolest groups of freedivers, but it is a privilege to learn about these highly honored and respected women.
A Little About Jeju Island
Jeju island is a culturally rich island previously thought of to be unfarmable. The rocky volcanic soil makes most types of agriculture difficult. For this reason, the island’s ancient inhabitants turned to diving to provide food for their families as early as 434 A.D.
The surrounding area, although mostly harsh and rocky, is beautiful to the eyes. The snow-capped, 1,950 meter tall (6,400 ft) mountain, Hallasan, is most likely the volcano that originally formed the island about 2 million years ago.
About 12% of the island is covered by the Gotjawal forest, which remained completely uncultivated or altered by humans well into the 20th century due to the difficult, rocky ground.
The island has violently passed hands between Japan and Korea and has been known throughout history by over ten different names. Ultimately belonging now to Korea, the people, however Korean they are, are also very unique from their mainland brothers.
The Haenyeo Traditions
In their prime, the haenyeo were made up of women of all ages, often being taught by freedivers of 80 years old. They replaced their husbands as divers because the men were all manning warships and fishing ships, but the demand for abalone remained high. The beginnings of these highly prized women were anything but easy.
Abalone is a prized delicacy by the elite members of Korea, and it was heavily taxed. If the women didn’t pay these steep taxes, they could be publicly flogged. The taxation and lack of other options for food and money drove the women to dive in frigid waters even while pregnant.
When the sea women started diving, frigid waters were a little more difficult to deal with. Without a scuba tank, and without neoprene wetsuits, the haenyeo had nothing more than hardly-effective cotton wetsuits, fins, and goggles.
The women dive, even today, in water possibly deeper than 10 meters (33 feet) searching for conch, abalone, and octopus. They float baskets at the surface of the water that they can hold on to to catch a breath and store their handfuls of bounty into before going down for another hunt.
Even into the modern era, the job continues to be dangerous. From 2009 to 2014, 40 haenyeo died. Repetitive diving without a tank of compressed air brings on many harsh symptoms. The haenyeo can suffer from chronic headaches, for which they use a local herb as a remedy. This herb may alleviate the headache, but it unfortunately raises their risk of stroke. Strokes are thought of to be the primary cause of drownings in the haenyeo of Jeju.
Significant Contributions to Culture and History
The haenyeo are more than just divers; they have forever changed the culture of Jeju and the effect remains prominent today.
Because of the great honor that the sea women bring on their families, the surrounding community has experienced a large reversal in gender roles. The husbands of Jeju haenyeo women would stay at home and care for the family while the women went out to work. The great majority of the haenyeo’s husbands were not secularly employed.
The gender-role-reversal went beyond the household to the point that even the payment of dowry for a bride was reversed. Truly, the haenyeo left their mark on the local culture.
As leaders of the community, the haenyeo also led at least one resistance against the occupation of Japan in 1932, to which there is a memorial monument constructed.
Jeju Haenyeo — A Never Forgotten Piece of History as Well as Present-Day Culture
Although the haenyeo are threatened now with a lack of new recruits, the remaining freedivers are still carrying on the tradition almost every day of the year. Most of these sea women are now well along in years, but they are as strong as ever. If you ever get to visit Korea, why not dive alongside the famed sea women, the haenyeo of Jeju.