Women of the Sea: A South Korean Sisterhood

On the island Jeju, off the coast of South Korea, beneath the dark waters of the cold, intrepid sea, a mystifying view of free divers can be seen among the ribbons of seaweed. These female divers defy expectations as they gracefully swim to depths up to 20 meters in search for delicacies such as octopus, shellfish, abalone, and sea urchins. Without the aid of oxygen tanks and advanced diving gear, the haenyeo, or women of the sea, don a simple wetsuit, flippers, mask, and weighted belt which elicits the suitable nickname, the last mermaids on earth. Contrary to the illustrated image of a young, strikingly beautiful mermaid, most haenyeo are grandmothers, many in their 80’s, who radiate an inner glow of beauty. The evidence of a life dedicated to hard work lies in the wrinkles of their faces and in the strength of their hands and fingernails. They receive no formal training, they learn to dive from their mothers, grandmothers, and other haenyeo, creating a sisterhood bond among the women. While in the sea, they choose to challenge their physical abilities, training their mind and body to withstand intense pressure and condition their lungs to ignore its desire for oxygen for minutes on end. The hours spent underwater forms an intimate relationship between the haenyeo and the sea, rendering their mission as not merely a form of subsistence but a self-reliant and enlightened way of life.

The unique and highly skilled haenyeo provided necessary economic stability and have defined the culture and essence of Jeju, dating back to the 17th century. Contrary to the mainland Confucian society, women became the breadwinners during the Joseon Era (1392–1910) to avoid the high taxes demanded of the male but not female citizens. The women often worked from morning until night, diving for several hours before turning their focus to agricultural farming. Recognizing the economic force they created, Dr. Anne Hilty, a cultural health psychologist, explains that they “enjoyed an organic form of leadership unimaginable to their mainland counterparts.” Their leadership does not extend to village chief or government official, rather the ability to choose their own husbands and influence decision-making in their households and villages. The haenyeo led their families out of poverty through committing themselves to a life of labor by independently navigate the sea.

Endowed with newfound independence, strong self-awareness, and a sense of adventure, the haenyeo women cultivate a highly cohesive society. Although the work is performed independently, they collectively gather together prior to embarking into the sea. Spiritual rituals, meaningful songs of labor, sharing the warmth of a fire and contributing to the mutual aid of others forge a community of compassion and unity. A strict hierarchy and mutual respect exists among the haenyeo. An article by Choe Sang-Hun in the New York Times explains that when a village school needs repairs, the younger haenyeo donate a portion of their proceeds. The younger divers also stay in the deeper waters, leaving the shallow parts to the older and weaker women. Understanding the beauty that lies in their connection with the sea, yet the physically demanding work they undertake, it is difficult to picture any of these women as weak. The sea stares at the haenyeo with the possibility of death but they choose to dive nonetheless.

The haenyeo build themselves on a solid foundation, driven by purpose and sheltered by the sea. Although the risks can be fatal, the benefits elevate the mind, spirit and body. The experience has been described by the haenyeo in an old proverb that states, “We go to the Otherworld to earn money, and return to this one to save our kids.” While keenly aware of the dangers that lurk beneath the sea, once they enter the water, the haenyeo view the ocean as a type of sanctuary. Dr. Hilty describes it as “a womb, a place where earthly cares disappear and the mind is free, singularly focused on the catch.” This sense of euphoria can be explained by a physiological phenomenon known as nitrogen narcosis which leads to generalized tranquility. Unfortunately, it may also impair judgment which can cause the divers to misjudge the distance to the surface and their need for air. Many other symptoms of free-diving challenge the haenyeo, including chronic headaches, loss of consciousness, damage to bodily tissues caused by repeated change in pressure, hypothermia, arthritis, and dangers from sea life such as giant stinging jellyfish. While their active lifestyle in the sea serves to prolong their lifespan, many haenyeo have lost their lives while swimming in the deep waters.

(Credit: David Hogsholt)

(Credit: David Hogsholt)

This unique culture of independent women is quickly dwindling not in relation to the risks of diving, but to the globalization of Jeju and, ironically, to the economic success the haenyeo have achieved. Contrary to the rest of Korea, David Hogsholt explains that the birth of a girl in Jeju, a diver, would be cause for celebration but that is changing. Only a short 40 to 50 years ago, approximately 30,000 haenyeo filled the waters of Jeju almost daily. Today they number less than 5,000 and roughly 84% of those are over 60 years old. The haenyeo’s specialized skills and dedication to their craft has equalized any lack of formal education. They became highly profitable in the 70’s due to the increase in seafood exports to Japan which allowed them to send their daughters to college. Heightened education along with increased tourism and a modernization of the island provide safer employment opportunities for the younger generations that were not possible for the haenyeo. Given their affinity and individual love for the sea, the haenyeo remain uninclined to train their daughters as replacements. In an interview with Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times, Ms. Kim Eun-sil, an 80-year-old haenyeo and mother of five children who has been diving for over 60 years, states that she will be the last haenyeo in her family, emphasizing that her “only daughter doesn’t even know how to swim.”

We cannot allow this peculiar yet extraordinary breed of women divers who hold an unparalleled knowledge of the sea simply fade away. They have collectively fortified an economy and established a charming culture rooted in purpose. Conservation organizations and governments across the globe have realized the need to preserve the Jeju haenyeo culture and have worked to obtain a cultural heritage designation with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The anthropological Jeju Haenyeo Museum highlights many aspects of the haenyeo culture, and the increase in tourism to the island has allowed the spirit of their heritage to spread throughout the world.

The ability to harness their independence in a patriarchal society and find joy in arduous labor serves as a potent example to all women. Entering the sea hundreds of years ago out of necessity has truly become a labor of love for these women, a way to protect and sustain their families. I often feel that there is a burden of expectation placed upon women in our society. Abundant feelings of inadequacy and pressure to remain self-reliant are caused by increasing divorce rates, a competitive economy, and enforced individualistic values. Many patriarchal societies fear the power of women, suppressing them into insignificance. The Jeju haenyeo have proven to all men, and especially women, that given the opportunity, the innate strength of a woman can carry not only her family, but an entire culture. As a single mother, I find that to be inspiring and worth preserving.