• Dispatch #19 •
Meet Jeju’s sea women and how they are the stewards of the ocean.
Jeju is famously abundant for three things: wind, stones, and women. The last one refers to one of their treasures: Jeju’s haenyeo, literally “sea women”, female divers who take to the ocean to catch abalone, clams, and seaweed without any special diving equipment.
As societies modernize, many traditional professions diminish. In the case of the haenyeo, increasing educational and professional opportunities for women, technology-driven ways for fishing and diving, and the effects of climate change on the oceans are some of the driving factors for the dwindling numbers of the haenyeo.
As it was a foggy day, it was hard not to see the romantic side of encountering a profession that is almost extinct. While seeing a person dive is not strange, it is the fact that most of these women are senior citizens that amazed me. For the group of divers we were going to see, the youngest is in her fifties.
What is even more remarkable is the simplicity of the haenyeo‘s tools. With simple diving suits, some weights, a mask, a floatation device, and a net to store their catch, these women can dive in one of the windiest places in the country.
One manifestation of the rarity of haenyeo is the fact that to view them, I had to book a tour bus to watch a show. Here, tourists can watch these women prepare for their journey and dive for some clams and abalone. A nearby restaurant can get you fresh seafood to eat.
Why women? For an island province, most men made a living through fishing and many died during typhoons. During their heyday, these diving women were the providers of the family and could even send their children to school with the money they earned from their catch. This matriarchy is fascinating especially in South Korea where Confucianism rules.
It’s impossible not to root for these women as you see them dive. Each line on their faces must be a story of the many underwater journeys they have made in their lifetimes. There was no whooping or cheering from any of us in the audience. We watched them solemnly, as though they could actually be our grandmothers. Quite badass ones at that.
It is noteworthy that these women represent a strong sisterhood and community of people looking out for each other, which is similar to other female communities in other countries.
Indigenous marine biologists
So in the modern age, how can the haenyeo survive? One way is with continued tourism, such as this show. There is already a haenyeo museum, added benefits for these women, and since 2014, the South Korean government has sought for UNESCO recognition for these women as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage.
But another, more intriguing suggestion comes from renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who during the 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) has suggested reframing these women as “indigenous marine biologists” who can catalog their findings during their dives. The haenyeo are, in their own right, scientists who understand the seas better than most people. As the oceans suffer from increasing temperatures and rising sea levels, these women have the knowledge and experience to report what is happening to Jeju’s marine environment. They could also help the younger generation be more educated in marine biology and more personally connected to the oceans—a necessity in today’s tech-driven world. Cultural heritage such as the haenyeo must survive, not just for their sake, but for ours.