The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

Korea’s traditional Haenyeo female freedivers pass into history: see them while you can

Written By: herbrunbridge - Sep• 30•12

Haenyeo divers on Jeju island, South Korea, prepare to enter the water in search of seafood

On Jeju island, in southern Korea, you have an opportunity to witness an artifact of tradition, the female haenyeo divers that still, utilizing little more than a mask and a wetsuit, ply local waters in search of edible sea life. They learned their craft from their mothers and grandmothers, but no young girl today aspires to be a haenyeo diver. Today’s youngest divers are in their late 40s, and no one will take their places. From roughly 30,000 of them 50 years ago, today their number is estimated to be fewer than 3,000.

Twice a day, at 1:30 and 3:00 pm, several of these women gather to sing (see the WoWasis video), suit up, and demonstrate their craft in a lagoon just to the eastern side of the well-known Ilchulbong crater in eastern Jeju. They bear a kinship with Japan’s Ama divers, but they are Korea’s unique cultural treasure.

Here at WoWasis, we first became aware of these divers, who go as deep as 50 feet and hold their breaths for up to 2 minutes, from an academic classroom film distributed in 1975. It showed a 12 year old girl learning to dive from her mother. It is now 2012. That girl would now be 49 years old, if she were still diving. It’s common for haenyeo divers to work until their 70s, hard, tough work. They are not being replaced by younger divers, so the generation now diving is the end of the line.

AsiaPromoBannerAt Ilchulbong, 1:30 arrives. One woman begins singing her plaintive call to the sea. Three other divers engage in call-and-response. After a few moments, they throw their floats and bags in the water and move further out into the lagoon. Within a few moments, one diver has found an octopus, the first catch of the day. She’s elated, and waves her catch for all to see. Roughly 50 people are there to see the show. Most appear to be from Japan. They applaud everything, as they know that they are seeing history pass them by. Remarkably, there is no charge for the show, the divers hope that viewers will buy some of the seafood they’ve caught, and eat it right there.

Technology marches quickly. Young village girls see on TV that there are easier ways to make a living than free-diving in the cold waters.  There is a phenomenally interesting museum a few km northwest of Ilchulbong, the Haenyeo Museum, dedicated to the story of these divers, and there’s a wonderful book on the subject that you can buy there. But do see the real thing while you still can, at Ilchulbong. In 10 years, it will simply be a memory, preserved only in the photos and artifacts in the museum. You’ll tell your kids or grandkids that you saw real haenyeo divers, once. Hopefully, that 16mm film we mentioned earlier might emerge, digitized, and it will have a story to tell. If you saw them live, so will you.

Haenyo Museum
Near Sehwa, Jeju
Tel: (064) 782-9898

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