The Haenyo

Mermaids of the Deep

Saturday, August 12, 2006, 01:07


Haenyo shun the limelight but I find one who is willing to meet me. The lead diver of 100 in the Seongsan diving group, Goh Soon Ja is in her early 60s and tall for a Korean woman, almost a head above her weathered, muscular colleagues. The others in her group are aged 40 to 80.

On the jetty near Seongsan village, she organises a team of 15 of her fittest divers - none of whom use breathing gear. They inspect their nets, masks, flippers, spears, hand tools, gloves and weight belts, shouting in the fierce Jeju dialect. 

As we pass the rocky Seongsan Ilchubong peak in a motorboat, the banter turns into a song with improvised words. Goh chooses a site and at her signal the women enter the water in pairs. 

The rubber-suited figures disappear to forage on the ocean floor, leaving their taewaks bobbing on the surface. The women are weighed down with lead tied around their waists, chests and backs - up to seven kilograms for the younger women and more for those over 60.

"Younger divers use their arms and legs to dive deeper but it's harder for the older women," says Goh, who has been diving for more than four decades. 

When all the others are in the water, Goh jumps in and I time her dive - on one breath, it is one minute and thirty seconds before she surfaces. Goh can easily dive to 15 metres. 

At the end of the shift the hauls are gathered at the community co-op - a voluntary organisation formed by divers from 100 villages - that sells the products to shops and restaurants. 

Over the years, haenyo numbers have dropped significantly. When modern transport made the Korean mainland more accessible, tourism grew, new opportunities beckoned and the younger women moved away. . 

In the 1950s there were about 30,000 female divers on the island. In 2006, there were 5406, only two of whom were younger than 30, according to the Jeju Provincial Government.

"If I had a daughter, I would not want her to follow in my footsteps," Goh says.

"We lead a hard life. My body aches. I suffer constantly from headaches and earaches."

When the current divers hang up their wetsuits, all that may remain of the haenyo will be the legends of the women who once braved the ocean.


Christina Pfeiffer travelled courtesy of the Korea National Tourist Office.


Jeju Free Diving