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Jeju’s female divers a dying breed

UNESCO listing may be catalyst for preservation of centuries-old tradition

JEJU ― On a windy Tuesday morning, two elderly women are selling fresh abalone, conch, sea cucumber and sea squirt in plastic basins filled with seawater in front of the Haenyeo House on Saekdal Beach in Jungmun, southern Jejudo Island. A small plate of assorted seafood, cut up fresh to order, costs 20,000 won.

The women are female divers, known as haenyeo or jamsu, selling their catch. 

“Right now is not a diving period. I will go into the water in a couple of days,” says one of the divers, who wished to be identified only as Kim.

It is early spring and the water is still cold, but no matter, she says. At 75, she still dives a couple of hours at a time in the colder months and 5-6 hours in the summer, she boasts. A Jeju native, she cannot remember when she actually learned to dive.

“I live by the sea. It was only natural to play in the water as a youngster and by the time I was in my early teens, I was doing ‘muljil,’” she explains. “Muljil” refers to diving and harvesting various marine products. “I know the landscape under the water like the palm of my hand. I know where to catch what. It is all in my mind’s eye,” she says.

Kim is one of 5,380 haenyeo on Jeju Island, of whom about 4,500 are active as of the end of 2013. Records show that the tradition of women divers on Jeju Island goes back many centuries. In a book on Jeju topography written in 1629, Joseon-period scholar Lee Geon noted that haenyeo harvested abalones, while a map of Jeju Island from 1702 depicts haenyeo diving in the water. During the Joseon period, the job of haenyeo was to harvest seaweed and abalone for the royal court in Hanyang, today’s Seoul. 
A haenyeo searches underwater for marine products in the waters off Jocheon-eup, northern Jejudo Island. (Haenyeo Museum)
A haenyeo searches underwater for marine products in the waters off Jocheon-eup, northern Jejudo Island. (Haenyeo Museum)

With the tradition of haenyeo at risk of dying out as the divers age ― the average age of 102 haenyeo who participated in a 2013 study of their life history was 77, the oldest being 97 ― and few young people taking up the physically taxing and dangerous work, the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province is seeking a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity listing for haenyeo. If haenyeo are listed next year, they will join 16 other intangible cultural heritage entries from Korea ― including the Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut, a ritual held to pray for calm seas, an abundant harvest and sea catch ― that are already inscribed.

Spirit of community

To become a haenyeo, one must join a fishing village cooperative of the village where one lives. Joining a fishing village cooperative requires the agreement of the members and a one-time payment of one million won to join the Fisheries Cooperative.

While it is difficult for an outsider to join a fishing village, members often pass on their diving rights to their daughters and daughters-in-law.

“Personal relationships are most important as muljil puts your life in danger. It is inevitable that a sort of cartel is formed,” explained Kang Kwon-young, curator at Haenyeo Museum in Jeju. 
A group of haenyeo head to work carrying “tewak” and nets in the coastal village of Hado-ri on Jejudo Island. (Haenyeo Museum)
A group of haenyeo head to work carrying “tewak” and nets in the coastal village of Hado-ri on Jejudo Island. (Haenyeo Museum)

Communal spirit is at the core of haenyeo culture as the divers are partners in ensuring each other’s safety, yet competing for harvest.

An Mi-jeong, an anthropologist specializing in marine cultures at the Institute of International Maritime Affairs in Busan, lived in the northeastern coastal village of Gimmyeongni from April 2005 to March 2006 as part of her fieldwork on haenyeo. In “The Maritime Garden of Jeju Woman Divers,” published in 2008, she relates an incident where she was publicly scolded for not following directions.

“I was recognized as a member and Sukhi (a haenyeo) was stopping me from moving in a direction where I may have been swept away by a strong current,” she writes.

“There is no muljil without a friend,” goes an old haenyeo saying.

Conservator of marine ecology

Haenyeo are allowed to harvest only within the waters marked as belonging to the fishing village cooperative of which they are members. While customary boundaries traditionally had been observed, official boundaries for the fishing village cooperatives were drawn up in 1975.

Competition among haenyeo could be fierce under such a system, but the women seek equitable distribution of their harvest, giving away part of their catch to a diver who has a poor catch. Such favors are always returned by the recipient.

While the divers make their living by picking marine products, they also play an active role in conserving the ecology of the sea. To guard against depleting the sea of marine life, restrictions are enforced during the spawning season. For example, a ban on catching conch, the most picked marine product, is in place from June to September. In the summer months when a diving ban is in place, the women divers turn their attention to the land, tending to their fields.

Old black-and-white photographs of haenyeo from before the 1970s show tanned haenyeo wearing white cotton garments. Today, haenyeo wear rubber suits which were introduced in the 1970s after a group went to Japan to dive with ama, Japan’s divers, on a cultural exchange program.

The rubber suits allow the divers to stay in the water for 5-7 hours. Each dive lasts 1-2 minutes where haenyeo use a number of tools to pick marine products. When divers surface, they take a cleansing breath with a whistling sound called “sumbi” and the catch is placed in a net attached to a “tewak,” or buoy. Leaning on tewak, haenyeo take a short break, before diving back into the water.

“It used to be such a spectacular sight to see a huge group haenyeo all jump into the water as the diving ban was lifted. This is no more,” recalled Paek Un-chol, a Jeju native in charge of developing Jeju Stone Park.

Haenyeo culture

Haenyeo have only been seen as workers and the study of haenyeo culture is a recent development. Today, academics view haeneyo in an entirely new perspective.

“The value of haenyeo lies in the fact that they preserve the marine ecology and are keepers of folk knowledge. They are a living cultural legacy that is worth preserving,” said Choa Hae-kyung, a haenyeo specialist at Jeju Development Institute’s Jeju Studies Research Center. “They also sustain the folkloric beliefs with their rituals and folk music of Jeju is preserved by haenyeo who still sing the old haenyeo songs,” she added.

Haenyeo are disappearing at an alarming rate. “Two hundred to 300 women retire every year, and in 10-20 years, the number of haenyeo will be drastically reduced,” said Choa.

With time quickly running out, much study still needs to be done on haenyeo and their unique culture. Among them are bio-physiological studies of haenyeo, said Haenyeo Museum’s Kang.

“This is an urgent issue. Haenyeo are getting old and we need to do research on their physiological traits, such as their lung capacity, their agility,” he said. “The UNESCO listing can be a catalyst for more research,” he added.

Choa hopes that a UNESCO listing will lead to more women becoming haenyeo.

“There is hope that a designation as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage will help preserve haenyeo culture. What is important, however, is not the UNESCO listing itself but the creation of an environment where young haenyeo will emerge,” said Choa.

“The UNESCO listing may change the perception of the future generations and lead to its preservation as a living tradition,” she added. Because of the difficult nature of their work, most haenyeo harbor shame, considering muljil as a lowly job.

Back on the beach, Kim is upset with a group of middle-aged women who have asked for a generous serving.

“No way. I put my life at risk every time I go into the water. The money I earn comes at the expense of my life. I never give customers extra,” she says.

Does she have daughters or daughters-in-law who are divers?

“No! Why would I teach them something as dangerous and difficult as muljil? It is enough that I do it!” she says as she walks off abruptly.

By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer