In a society where males are traditionally more highly valued, Korea’s matriarchal Haenyo or “sea women” are unique. Amy Huang reports on the fascinating women divers of Jeju Island.
They call them mermaids, brave women of the seas that roam the ocean floors for clams, abalone and seaweed; they are the heads of their families and are the source of the seafood consumed in the north Asia region.
Korea’s female divers or Haenyeos, are a unique group of women on the island of Jeju in Korea.
In a culture where males are traditionally more valued, on Jeju Island it is the women who work all day and keep a special place in Jeju’s matriarchal society, and among the Haenyeos it is the baby girls that are the gems of the family trade.
Daughters learn to dive from their mothers and will begin to work 6-7 hours a day in shallower waters by the age of ten.
Working in groups for safety, the Haenyeos can hold their breath for two minutes and dive with only rubber suits and weights. They plunge as far as 20 meters into the sea with a net to hold their catch and able to expel excess carbon dioxide by whistle as they surface.
It is not known when the Haenyeo tradition began but ancient shrines around the island indicate that the Haenyeos have been diving since humans began to gather food from the sea.
The Haenyeos are not only skilled divers; they are also interested in cultural and social activities. During the colonial era, they led anti-Japanese campaigns and were awarded medals for their contribution. They also established cooperatives such as restaurants and markets to preserve marine resources.
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Today, the Haenyeos play the role of the guardians of the seas, work to preserve the Haenyeo culture, seas and assist with the ocean’s ecological environment.
Due to their place in Jeju society, the Haenyeos enjoyed more freedom, independence and self-respect than other women in Korea. With the increased demand in seafood in the region, the Haenyeos can make more money than ever, and are able to build better houses and send their daughters to good schools and colleges.
However, modernisation comes with a price, with many of their daughters choosing a modern trade and career over diving, and along with many other threats such as heart problems from prolonged pressure and shark attacks, the number of Haenyeos are in the decline.
It is possible that in the next decades to come, the museum dedicated to the lives of Haenyeos (english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/) may be the only memory of this unique society.
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