By: Nicole Grycweig
They cook, take care of the house, children and do everything else that is required to be done in a day in the life of working women. What is extraordinarily special about Haenyeo women in the South Korean island Jeju is that they have the grit to dive free into the cold, treacherous sea to be the breadwinners in their families.
Watching these women diving is an awe-struck sight. They dive free into the deep water, down up to 10 meters, holding their breath for a couple of minutes, without an oxygen tank or other equipment. The purpose is to collect abalone, sea urchins and cucumbers.
Most of these women are over 60 years now, some of them are diving even in their 70s and 80s. Their training for this profession, also called Muljil locally, begins at a really young age. Traditionally, the mothers pass on the skills and expertise to their daughters to take up the profession.
Originally, this type of diving was exclusive to men. Over a period of time, female divers began to outnumber the male divers, turning diving into an industry dominated by women in Jeju and boosting the island’s economy. The first records of Haenyeo are from the 17th century. Many of these women subsequently replaced their husbands as to the main providers of their families.
Haenyeo women defy the conventional patriarchal system and represent a semi-matriarchal family structure in Jeju and are considered to be the pillar of the island’s economy. However, even with international acclaims, the number of these divers are dwindling significantly. Despite their exceptional efforts, seafood harvesting is not the economic driver in Jeju. It is tourism that contributes to maximum economic growth. Jeju’s beautiful landscapes and idyllic beaches make it a popular touristic destination, especially for the honeymooner.
This, along with the lack of interest by the new generation women to take up free-diving as a profession, it would not be surprising to see this long-lived tradition disappearing in the future. Meanwhile, the stories of these women continue to inspire all.
Pictures: Our contributor write Nicole Grycweig recently travelled to South Korea and had a chance to know these superwomen up and close. Nicole shares some of her pictures from her memorable experience.