The Haenyo

Saturday, August 12, 2006, 01:07

Haenyo, the strong women divers of Jeju Island

At 11 a.m. each morning, the boat speeds away from the shores of Korea's Jeju Island; in it Goh Soon-Ja's handpicked A-Team, dressed in their black rubbery frogmen-style wetsuits weighed down by stones tied to their waist, prepare themselves for their days' work. Some spit and rub their masks, a couple yell away at each other on top of their lungs discussing the jump order; the ones that are going in first pull their rubber headgear over sun bleached hair.

They speak a dialect that has loud and authoritative tones, not comprehensible to standard Korean speakers. These are the Haenyo, the strong women divers of Jeju Island. Their fates are tied to the sea, and financial destinies determined by the moods of the changing tides. When the tides are not right, the women busy themselves with household tasks and work in the fields. During peak tide, female divers both young and old make their way to the ocean, nets and fishing baskets slung over their shoulders.

Goh Soon-Ja first started diving in the waters around Jeju Island in the 1960's. She was a well-built 19-year-old who, like many other women of this island, was forced to eke out a living in the ocean. This tall authoritative 58-year-old leader of the 100-strong Seongsan area diving group enjoys a common affinity, shaped through years of harsh conditions, with her band of weather-beaten and powerfully built Haenyo women divers.

Haenyo, the strong women divers of Jeju Island

Goh, chosen for her strong diving skills and experience was elected as the area leader about one year ago. The oldest in her group is 80 but as the Korean mainland became more accessible through modern communications and access to different modes of transport; and as Jeju's strong harsh beauty was discovered by the tourism industry, opportunities for women began to appear. Today there are few divers under the age of 40.

In pairs, the women leap into the sea and get straight to work collecting gems from the ocean floor: octopus, abalone, sea urchin, sea slugs, cucumber and seaweed. After all the other divers are out of the boat, the boatman does a wide as Goh performs one last check. To the backdrop of the stunning rocky peak, she throws her white float and net into the sea and dives into her watery workplace. Goh waves us good bye and disappears under the water for almost two minutes. She surfaces from her 15-metre dive to expel a long breath.

Throughout history, these courageous women handled poverty, invasions and the loss of their men by accepting responsibilities traditional handled by men. The women physically rebuilt their villages, worked the land, and dived to gather food for personal consumption. It is still a curiosity as to how diving became the domain of women and almost taboo for the men of the island.

Seongsan Ilchubong

There are some that believe that women are more suited to diving than the men because the ratio of fat contained in their bodies enable them to endure the freezing water. Yet others believe that the female body is able to handle water pressure better than men. Whatever the reason, years of tradition have led these women to adopt a tough occupation where many rely on pills to control frequent headaches caused by the water pressure.

As Korea began trading with its neighbours, the divers started to benefit through exporting many of their products, such as abalone and seashells, to Japan. The average income for a days' work, $150-$200, has enabled them to provide their children with an education, releasing their daughters from this difficult and often dangerous watery fate.

As Goh and her team dive for economic survival to the backdrop of of Jeju Island's easternmost tip Seongsan Ilchubong or Sunrise peak, attracts tourists eager to glimpse the sweeping views and greet each day's new sun. Jagged rocks stick up like giant teeth along the crater's perimeter. From a distance, its moss-covered volcanic crater is surrounded by crags which give it an illusion of an ancient overgrown castle.

Seongsan Ilchubong or Sunrise peak

Four to five hours later, at the end of the shift, the days' haul is taken to the Community Co-Op which operates as a wholesaler by on-selling the products to retail stores and restaurants. Divers from approximately 100 Jeju villages organized themselves into a voluntary organization. The first Cooperative Association was established in 1920, in response to the Japanese demand for fishery products. By 1924 the association had 5,932 members, making it the largest of all fisheries-related co-operative associations.

In 1653, Hendrik Hamel, the bookkeeper of the Dutch United East Indian Company ship that was wrecked on the island's coast described Jeju as having one thickly wooded high mountain and many barren hills. Little has changed from his account, apart from the addition of some expensive luxury hotels and golf courses. Droves of honeymooners in matching clothes explore the island's nature spots with taxi drivers that also function as photographers follow them around clicking away furiously.

Korea's largest island is often referred to as Samdado the island of three abundances: rock, wind and women. In the center of the island, Mt. Hallasan at 1950 meters is Korea's highest peak and is visible from anywhere on the island. Hallasan is not only a nature reserve with excellent walking trails but it holds a spiritual significance among the people of Jeju. This extinct volcano has a colourful landscape of lava with unusually shaped rocks, caves, ponds, craters and waterfalls.

Winter scene of Mt. Hallasan

Legend has it that an elderly female giant named Seolmundaehalmang lived on Jeju Island. She was so big that at night she slept with Mt. Hallasan as her pillow. But the pointed summit made her uncomfortable, so she beat it down with her fist. The dent she made became Baengnokdam, the crater on the summit of Mt. Hallasan. Most of the island's folklore signifies the importance of women to this island through their tales of women ?giants, goddesses, herbalists.

The Jeju Provincial Government conducted a survey in late 2003. There were 5,659 women divers of which 2966 were over 60, 1,722 were over 50, 969 over 30, and only 2 below 30. This is in contrast to the 1950's where there were around 30,000 women divers on the island. When the current crop of divers hangs up their wetsuits and retires, all that will remain is the stories and photographs that may blend in and become yet another legend of this gripping coastline.


Jeju lies off the southern tip of the South Korean mainland.

Statues called "dolharubang." "Dolharubang" literally means stone grand farther in local tongue.

There are hotels and resorts in all price categories, with Hyatt and Crowne Plaza the best-known foreign names. Lotte and Shilla are top-class domestic chains.

Jeju Women Divers Festival is held in early June all over the island. It features a sea parade, events, musical contests and food festival.

Enquiries: Korea National Tourism Organisation

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Jeju Free Diving