Credit: Jeju Haenyeo Museum/Korea Tourism
On the surface Jeju, South Korea today is a place not too unlike other major tourist destinations and islands around the world, but if you dig a little deeper you can find a rich and sometimes deadly history that is completely unique to the small island which people up north call ‘Korea’s Hawaii’. Beyond the traditional grilled meat restaurants, craft beer houses, soju stalls, and music halls there’s a deep history waiting to be uncovered. Thirty meters deep, to be exact, and mostly without gear.
The haenyeo (해녀), literally ‘sea women,’ are part of a rich and storied tradition of Jeju freediving dating back to the 5th century. For ages, the families of Jeju, as with most islands, turned to the sea as their primary source of food. When they came up short, they went deeper, and deeper, until they began coming up with abalone, conch, oysters, and other marine life that they had grabbed with their bare hands. In addition, the haenyeo are responsible for harvesting seaweed, a staple food of Korea. Basically, these ladies are tough as nails, and they’re recognized as such. In the highly patriarchal Land of the Morning Calm, Jeju stands out as a matriarchal oddity, with the freediving women filling the role as sole breadwinner and their husbands staying at home with the children.
But it wasn’t always that way, and this has to do with Korea’s long history of invasion, unfortunately never on the giving end. Until about the mid-seventeenth century the business of freediving was handled by the men of the island; however, being constantly called off to war, sometimes never to return, the women at home decided that it was time to step up, strap in, and get down to business feeding their families. With constant occupation as a common theme in history, it was up to the women of Jeju to make sure that their families were well fed and economically taken care of. In another twist of Korean history, when most of the nation was being held down by the brutal reign of Japanese occupying forces, the haenyeo were seen as such a unique resource that Japanese and Korean businessmen started employing them around their respective countries, bringing them out of relative poverty and helping them make a larger profit than they ever had.
Modern Jeju is a far different place than the one the haenyeo grew up with. With the economic boom of the 80s, the government in Seoul decided the island was better suited to harvesting oranges and as a place for tourism tourism rather than fishing. Jeju is now seen more as an island of luxury than a piece of history. Its once bare and natural lands are covered with resorts frequented by the hip and wealthy from all over the world, and the rice wine has turned to mai tais in the hands of the younger generation.
The haenyeo, who now were able to see profit and take part in modern society, began sending their children to school instead of teaching them the tricks of the trade, which until this time were taught from the age of eleven. With that, the craft began to fade. For contrast, in 1970 only 14% of the sea women were 50 years of age or older, as of this decade that number has increased to 98%.
Credit: Jeju Haenyeo Museum/Korea Tourism
But not all is lost, the haenyeo tradition is preserved in the older generation of divers, who even at the age of eighty go out on dives for up to five hours a day and, while fit, lament the process of aging to a point where they can ‘only’ hold their breath for a minute a dive. They remember the days before the market, and are happy to discuss what it was like to catch fish for food rather than profit. In addition to the divers keeping up the tradition, in 2016 Korea successfully petitioned UNESCO to have the haenyeo tradition preserved as protected intangible cultural heritage, meaning that future generations will have the opportunity to learn about the traditions for a time to come. In fact, there’s an entire museum on Jeju dedicated to the craft.
If you get to Jeju, make sure to visit the coastline, where you might run into the women who have perfected the centuries-old craft of freediving and will be more than happy to sell you a fresh catch on the side of the road or at one of Jeju’s fish markets. While a fancy seafood meal for two could be at your fingertips in a five-star restaurant, it’s with the full flavors of a life well lived that one can experience the true taste of Jeju, and while you’re at it, you may get a story or two.
Todd Allen Williams, Senior Editor