The Mermaids of Jeju


Photo source: Wall Street Journal That gim (seaweed) and shellfish in your favorite soups and dishes are a product of Jeju's superwomen ...

Photo source: Wall Street Journal

That gim (seaweed) and shellfish in your favorite soups and dishes are a product of Jeju's superwomen divers. Meet the haenyeo (sea women) or the seaweed harvesters. 

They are mostly elderly women, aged over 50, who make a living out of diving into the depths of the East China Sea. Commonly, the oldest are in their nineties. But, despite their age, they dive up to 20 meters while holding their breath for about two minutes at a time. The women are clad in their government-sponsored wetsuits, not minding the cold during the five-hour stint. It's been said that this has been a practice since the 17th century. It used to be a job done by Jeju men. But when the king enlisted them in the army, Jeju women opted to do their husband's jobs.

Divers are grouped into three according to the level of experience: hagun, junggun, and sanggun. The sanggun guides the other two groups. Before they dive, they would pray to the jamsugut, goddess of the sea, for safety and abundance. 

One haenyeo, Yoo Ok-yeon, 62, said, “We never know in advance if we’re going to die or not. So many have died from heart attacks. The last one from our lot was a couple of years ago. She didn’t recognize that her blood oxygen was getting too low.” A report said that yearly, an average of nine haenyeo have died in the water over the past four years.

At 77, Oh Byeong-soon, a grandmother of six, began diving at age 20. She's been doing it for 50 years. “If I weren’t diving, I’d just be growing potatoes. I dived right through pregnancy, up to the ninth month." 

Jeju's historians said that this is normal. Many haenyeo gave birth on boats while on the task. Some even strapped their young while they worked.  

However, in a report by Financial Times, there is a growing concern that this tradition and culture endemic to Jeju would soon vanish. New generation women avoid haenyeo life and choose other careers in Jeju's suburbs or in South Korea's big cities. The story noted that from more than 14,000 in the '70s, haenyeo number has currently dwindled to fewer than 4,500. 

The culture of haenyeo has uplifted women’s status in the island's communities. It promotes environmental sustainability through environment-friendly methods and community participation in the handling of fishing practices.

For their earnings, if the season is good, they get about $25,000 a year. Apart from diving, they resort to farming and other side income sources. The women typically dive on and off in spring and winter while following government regulations to preserve production.

“Normally in South Korea, the men take charge of the women, but not in Jeju,” says Kang Kwon-yong, curator of the nearby Haenyeo Museum. “These women have their own jobs, they earn their own money, they’re the ones who resolve problems in the family. Most Koreans are still quite old-fashioned but these old ladies are the ones living in the 21st century.”
Photo source:

Source: Financial Times, UNESCO



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item The Mermaids of Jeju
The Mermaids of Jeju
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