Have you ever heard the story of mermaids living on beautiful Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea?
Jeju Island has always been an attractive destination in South Korea thanks to its distinct culture and impressive scenery. However, few people know about the culture of Jeju Haenyeo – the women divers who play an essential part in the island’s history.
Jeju island’s women divers
In Jeju island, you can find a community of women who goes diving 10m under the sea to pick up shellfish without the help of oxygen masks. Impressive, isn’t it?
As of 2011, there were about 5000 women divers on Jeju Island, South Korea. Most of them are over 50, and even some are 70 or 80 years old.
While these women divers have long been the main contributors to the island’s economy, their role is in a great transition. Nowadays, they’re mostly performers and are a symbol of Jeju island.
This diving activity has its roots in ancient times when the men went to the sea, and many of them did not return. The women at home alone raised their children, taking care of the tasks.
The history of Hanenyeo
Since old times, Jeju has often been called Samda-do, a nickname associated with the three most abundant things on the island: wind, rock, and women.
Unlike other places, when men are the breadwinner, on Jeju Island, women are the lead. They have to take care of themselves, support their family with jobs such as fishing, farming, raising animals.
Especially, the women here are also in charge of diving to look for sea products. They are called Haenyeo, which translates as female divers.
It’s not clear when the Hanenyeo started on Jeju Island in South Korea, but in the history of the Goryeo period (X-XIV century), ancient Koreans mentioned female divers.
During the Joseon period (XIV-XIX century), men also did the work of female divers, diving into the sea to find abalone and pick seaweed.
Women diver show
What would it be like to actually meet one of these divers?
I was surprised when I first read about Haenyeo, so I was excited to see how they work. Happened to know about their performance, I signed up Eastern Jeju Island Day Tour.