Haenyeo: The Spirit of Jeju

Main entry: Haenyeo.
Pronunciation: Hain-yo.
Definition: Sea Woman.
Synonyms: fearless, female diver, mermaid, spirit of Jeju.

All in a Day's Work

Haenyeo are extraordinary woman, unlike anyone else. Everyday they plunge into the dark depths of the sea searching for anything that can be eaten or sold to support their families. These woman use no special equipment– just goggles, fins, and the air in their lungs. They can hold their breath for 2-3 minutes diving to depths at over 30 feet. They scour the ocean floor in search of seaweed, abalone, octopus, and other shellfish. With traditional ways fading to modern life & technology so are the haenyeo. A dwindling number of 4,000 divers remain, 90% of them are between the ages of 50-70. These grannies are hard as nails!  

I feel so intrigued and drawn by these woman. South Korea is a man’s world and the fact that they are the bread winners for their families is astonishing. Haenyeo changed people’s views and opinions about women in the 18th and 19th centuries. Men were no longer the head of homes. Women were the ones working long 10-12 hour days while the men stayed at home. At the time of the haenyeo’s peak (1950’s) families on Jeju prayed for the birth of a baby girl. When Koreans found themselves being stripped of everything by the Japanese (1910-45) these fearless women rose up against Japan & fought side by side the men. They led the anti-Japanese movement in Jeju. Haenyeo are a dying tradition and Jeju is doing all it can to try and preserve their history as younger generations opt for less dangerous and demanding occupations. Jeju is scattered with monuments and statues honoring these courageous women. There is a fantastic Haenyeo Museum on the north-eastern coast of the island near Seongsan Ilchubong (Jeju’s famous volcanic crater). I would highly recommend a visit to this museum followed up with a drive along the coastline where you can witness these women working in action.   

 All of the guidebooks and online articles claims that anyone who gets the unique chance to witness haenyeo diving or even meet one of these lovely ladies is truly fortunate. I was one of the lucky ones. We left the Haenyeo Museum and were cruising along the jagged coastline to our next destination, we didn’t have the slightest bit of hope that we would actually see any female divers. That was until I spotted the unmistakable orange booeys floating on the ocean’s surface. I couldn’t believe it–we found haenyeo! I darted out of the car and raced to the water’s edge and stared at countless numbers of haenyeo going up and down, up and down. Emerging from the ocean’s water just long enough to catch a quick breath of air before disappearing into the sea once again. We sat opposite their diving area at a seafood resturant (eating rather dubious fish soup) and watched in awe as they dove the entire time we were sat there.  

 They are the heart & soul of Jeju Island. Guardians of the sea and of the land. I can imagine them gliding around underwater as graceful as mermaids– so well adapted to life in the sea. 

   The seaweed the haenyeo gathered and left to dry while they continued diving. (You can see their heads and booeys out at sea!) 

A great view of two Haenyeos mid-dive.  The booeys help them know their location when they resurface. 

 I took this picture right after this diver came from the water to sort through her findings from the morning. She smiled when I asked her for a picture, sat down, and continued working while overlooking her friends still out at sea. 

 

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Comments
5 Responses to “Haenyeo: The Spirit of Jeju”
  1. Kara says:

    i heart you lady!!! i just gave you an award on my blog 🙂 xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

  2. Denise says:

    Nick,

    You’ve won the same award on my blog! Love you SO merch!

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  1. […] We spent 5 days adventuring into lava tubes, hiking up gorgeous volcanic craters, marveling at haenyeo divers, being lazy on beautiful beaches, and eating seafood with eyes staring right back at us. Jeju is […]



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