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South Korea

The Curious Case Of South Korea's "Sea Women"

A South Korean haenyeo on Jeju island
A South Korean haenyeo on Jeju island
Jason Strother

JEJU ISLAND Kang Ok-ja, 75, looks out toward the ocean from the roadside. It's not a good day for diving, she tells me. Waves crash against black volcanic rocks that line a stretch of Jeju Island's north coast. Wind and rain are common on this South Korean island.

"The waves don't look so high now but the wind is picking up and they'll get bigger," says Kang. "It won't be safe for us to dive today."

She would know. Kang is a haenyeo, or "sea woman," and has been diving in these waters since she was a teenager.

For centuries, sea women like Kang on Jeju Island have helped support their families and communities by diving to the bottom of the ocean, holding their breath for up to two minutes to catch all kinds of seafood.

A generation ago, there were tens of thousands of these sea women. Today, they are several hundred, and many of them are now in their 60s.

For Kang, diving to catch seafood has been a family tradition. "My mother was a haenyeo. I saw her suffer a lot from the work. She told me that she didn't want me to become one. She said it was too difficult," says Kang. "She quit when I was 15 so I started diving to help the family."

"Please roll over"

When Kang began diving, there were about 40 sea womenin her neighborhood. Now, she is one of just three left. The trio dives together when possible. The women swim about 40 meters into the ocean wearing black rubber wetsuits, goggles and flippers. They shun air tanks. Instead, they dive about 15 meters or more deep with the help of three to five kilogram weights.

The group carries knives and other tools to free their catch. "Catching an octopus is difficult if it's stuck to a rock," says Kang. "You just have to cut one leg off at a time. If I run out of breath, I'll swim back up, catch my breath and dive back down to finish the job. I'm a very competitive person. I want to win."

Octopuses aren't the only sea creatures to give haenyeo a tough time. The women are cautious around dolphins whose dorsal fins could hurt them. But Kang says they have a mantra.

"We have a little spell we put on the dolphins," she says. "We repeat: "Please roll over, please roll over." We say it and they flip over. They don't want to hurt us."

Diving poses some health risks. Kang has undergone back surgery and can't hear out of her right ear because of the sudden pressure changes her work involves.

"My scariest moment diving was when one of my colleagues died," she recalls. "It was up to me to bring her body out of the water and up onto the rocks. It really scared me."

Dying tradition

The danger of diving to the ocean floor is one reason why Jeju Island's young women don't want to follow in the footsteps of their haenyeo mothers and grandmothers. But now, as this tradition fades from the island, some Korean women are starting to view the divers as heroes.

"From my balcony you can see the ocean. I counted how many minutes they can hold their breath," says Kwon Min-jin, 32, who moved to Jeju from Seoul a couple years ago. "It was amazing. When I see them, at first they just look like grandmas. But in the ocean they're like mermaids."

Kwon, who enrolled at a diving school run by haenyeo to learn how to catch seafood, says she's struggling to hold her breath the way sea women do. She says she is not giving up her day job any time soon.

On Jeju's east coast, a community of 300 sea womenwork at theSeopji Haenyeo House. The women, who work in 22-day shifts, rotate diving, cooking and waiting tables at the House's restaurant. I find tanks filled with sea cucumbers, conches and shellfish in there. In the kitchen, I watch a pan of conches become engulfed in flames.

Staff say that abalone, a type of shellfish, used to be the most popular and expensive dish a couple of decades ago. But these days, it's almost impossible to find any on the ocean floor because of environmental damage as well as the greed of some of the sea women. The diminishing catch of seafood is another reason that the haenyeo tradition is dying.

"They took all of them, didn't leave any of (the abalone) behind to reproduce," says diver Lee Sun-duk.

The Jeju government is trying to keep alive the haenyeo livelihood. Officials applied for UNESCO world heritage status and promote a haenyeo diving show for tourists. The diving spectacle shows women jumping into a lagoon. The divers then emerge minutes later with shellfish and sing a song for the audience.

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