Lady Good Divers


Before you see them, you can hear their breath. There’s even a word for the sound: sumbisori, a whistling noise made as they break the surface after a long submersion. A slick, black seal-like form attaches itself to an orange buoy floating offshore. In minutes it emerges on the rocky beach as a woman holding a drooping octopus in her hands. She smiles and holds it out, not a boast but an offering: Please—have a bite.

“I have seen them riding seaward on the waves / Combing the white hair of the waves blown back.” T.S. Eliot wrote these lines about mermaids, but he might as well have composed them while gazing at the whitecaps around Jeju-do, South Korea, where real women of the sea, living myths in black rubber suits and glass masks, haunt the shorelines with all the mermaids’ briny mystery, singing boisterous, undulating songs of consolation and regret—blues from the deep. They’re the haenyeo (“sea women”), female divers who scour the ocean floor off the island’s gnarled coast harvesting conch, octopus, urchin, and abalone to feed the hungry South Korean seafood industry, one of the largest in the world. They dive without tanks, as they’ve done for hundreds of years, cheating the limits of the human body by holding their breath for up to two minutes at a time, a skill learned from their mothers and ingrained by a lifelong intimacy with the ocean.

It’s a perilous profession, requiring great strength of body and spirit. While many East Asian cultures stress the dominance of men, Jeju—South Korea’s largest island, located roughly 53 miles south of the mainland at the junction of the Yellow and East China Seas—developed as a matriarchy. The women are responsible for a significant part of the household income (not to mention the local economy), and they often become the heads of their households. Even now many stout, tough, proudly independent grandmothers spend their days prying shellfish from stone at depths of up to 65 feet, a testament to the firmness of their mettle as well as their muscle tone.

At present, though, the haenyeo (pronounced “HEN-yuh”) are facing threats that could prove impossible to survive, as the drag of age and the brusque stride of economics erode their culture one diver at a time. In recent decades, Jeju’s economy has shifted from fishing and farming to tourism, and as its cities have grown, so have the ambitions of its young people, who want the same urban lifestyles as their peers in Seoul and Busan. Given the choice between a cashmere suit and a rubber one, young women here no longer opt for the latter.

“We’re worried about the life disappearing,” says Ryu Kye-ryang, a 67-year-old haenyeo from Sagye, a small village at the base of the squat, abrupt mountain called Sanbangsan that looms over Jeju’s Yongmeori coast in the south. Taught to dive at age 14 by her mother, Ryu retired last year after undergoing surgery to correct backaches caused by having lead weights strapped to her waist for five decades. “No younger people are learning,” she says. “They want to live in Jeju City. Farming and diving, it’s hard work—no one wants to do it.” As recently as the 1970s, Jeju boasted up to 15,000 haenyeo; these days there are only a third of that number. Ryu says that in Sagye now there are no haenyeo left who are under 45 years old.

To preserve a rare artifact, all you need is enough money, but a way of life can’t be encased in glass. Chwa Hye-kyoung, who earned her Ph.D. researching the haenyeo, is in charge of research and development at the Jeju Haenyeo Museum in Hado, where many divers' tools, documents, and stories are on display. She worries about intangibles like the haenyeo's song, which has no fixed verses - the words are improvised by the women on trips out to sea as a way of lightening their mood, serving the same purpose as spirituals did for the slaves of the American South. "The songs and dances and rituals have to be preserved," says Chwa. "The haenyeo exist in only two countries" Japan" - where they're called ama - "and Korea. So it's very rare, these women's culture." She believes that with more concentrated organizational efforts on the part of the government, it's possible for the haenyeo to survive, and she sees signs that history and the present are aligning to make it happen. She points to the recognition of the major role haenyeo played in organizing the resistance movement during Korea's occupation by Japan in the 1930s—a piece of the haenyeo's history that was buried for decades and has been widely acknowledged only in the past five years.

The divers themselves are also realizing the need to adapt. "Before, when tourists would come and take pictures of the haenyeo, they'd hate it," Chwa says. "But their minds have been changed a lot. They've begun to feel proud." As another step toward preservation, Chwa is hoping to persuade Unesco to enshrine the haenyeo on its cultural heritage list, which could increase the divers' global profile even as their traditional role is waning.

Meanwhile, the haenyeo are still a strong presence on Jeju. Drive along the winding coastal roads near Gwakji beach or wander the sloping canola fields near Seongsan, and you’ll eventually encounter a troupe of them, dressed in their thick, black wet suits, trundling by with nets, fins, and taewak, the hollowed-out gourds they use to stash their salty harvest. The taewak remain bobbing on the surface when the women go under the waves. Back on shore, at seaside stalls around Jeju, tubs of abalone, octopus, mottled sea cucumber, and spiny, rust-colored sea squirt sit waiting to be sliced and served on plastic plates, with a side of sticky red hot sauce called ch’ojang. Guidebooks come with warnings for travelers inclined to sample the squirming bits of baby octopus that are cut up live at the stalls: The suction cups still work, presenting a choking hazard, especially if eaten while tipsy. If you catch a haenyeo returning from a dive, it’s possible to sample sea urchin directly from her net, smashed open on the pier with a hammer so you can scoop out its spongy roe with a finger. Although it’s risky to make absolute claims in an age of saturation marketing, the haenyeos harvest earns one: They serve the freshest seafood in the world, taking mere seconds on the trip from ocean to tongue.

The haenyeo have already been honored with stone monuments overlooking the sea along Jeju’s western coast road, but if they end up fading into myth it’s not the stones that will keep their memory—it’s the seafood, and the flavors of wind, salt, sea foam, and survival it contains. While the song of the haenyeo is the sound of lament, the delicacies they collect taste of their resilience, and of the improbable joy they’ve managed to wring from lives battered by the sea. “After diving, we’d be happy,” Ryu says, recalling the bultuck, the post-dive gathering where the women would peel off their suits and reclaim the warmth of life above the surface. “The days when our catch was big—those were the best days.”

To learn how to make a splash on Jeju-do, South Korea's largest island, click here. "Lady Good Divers" originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Culture+Travel. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Culture+Travel's July/August 2008 Table of Contents.