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South Korea’s ‘Women of the Sea’ Have Free Dived For Abalone Since the 17th Century

Diving supported life on the wind-scoured, rocky island of Jeju

Haenyeo from South Korea's Jeju island (Michael Runkel/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Off the southern coast of South Korea, the island of Jeju is home to women divers called haenyeo or "sea women." For centuries, haenyeo have swum out into the chilly waters of the Korea Strait and dove to the sea bottom without the aid of breathing equipment, in order to harvest abalone, conch and octopus. Traditionally, they were the breadwinners for their families. But now more than 80 percent of them are over the age of 60, writes Sofia Salazar-Rubio for Food First, a think tank focused on food systmes.

To work, the haenyeo don goggles, flippers and wetsuits —once made of white cotton, now of neoprene. "They duck under water more than 100 times a day, grabbing sea creatures barehanded or sometimes with a spear," Choe Sang-Hun writes for the New York Times. "Resurfacing a minute later, making a plaintive whistle as they exhale, they deposit their catch into a net sack tied to a float."

The practice flipped the island’s society from a largely patriarchal one to a matriarchy, but it has roots in hardship. The Jeju is rocky and windy, not a good place for crops. In the 17th century, men started fishing out at sea or manning warships, so diving fell to the women. Sang-Hun writes: 

An 18th-century document recorded that officials flogged the women, and even their parents or husbands, when they failed to pay steep taxes in dried abalone, a prized delicacy among Korea’s elite, forcing women to dive in cold water even when pregnant.

The work has always been perilous. The women work long hours in icy water as deep as 40 feet. Old haenyeo ballads speak of “diving with a coffin on the head” or “toiling in the netherworld so our family can live in this one.” The divers pray to sea goddesses for protection, regularly offering them rice, fruit and imitation paper money.

Now the island’s economy is buoyed by tourism more than the diving catch. Just about 4,500 haenyeo work today, compared to 26,000 in 1960, Salazar-Rubio notes for Food First. This documentary following a 12-year-old diver-to-be gives a peek at the haenyeo’s world during its heyday:

A more recent documentary shows 80-year-old women still diving. In 2014, South Korea applied to have the haenyo to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage for the country. They hope that the designation will help protect this way of life and inspire younger women to take up the tradition.

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