Sixty-something haenyeo (literally, “sea woman”) Kang Jung-ah prepares for another day of free-dive fishing at depths of up to 10m, where the catch might include abalone, seaweed, sea urchin, sea squirt, sea snail and sea cucumber.
Rock of ages
The haenyeo tradition has survived for centuries but, according to Jeju Island’s Haenyeo Museum, the divers’ numbers have dropped in recent decades: from around 23,000 in the 1960s to around 4,300 in 2018.
The women prepare for the dive: minimal kit includes a yeoncheol (weighted belt), wangnum (goggles) and bitchang (hand hoe) for harvesting the seabed. None of them use oxygen tanks; from an early age, they’re taught to hold their breath for up to two minutes, before expelling the CO2 and taking in fresh air with a whistling gasp known as sumisori.
The haenyeo “pod” swim out from the basalt rock of volcanic Jeju’s north coast. The muljil (harvest) may last for up to six hours. Haenyeo culture relies heavily on teamwork; training to full competency takes five years. Each haenyeo needs a “yes” vote from every woman in her village to become a trainee.
All at sea
A female diver looks across a still ocean. Many women lose their lives at sea when their ropes become tangled with seaweed and it remains a dangerous profession.
That’s a load off
A retired haenyeo helps bring the day’s catch ashore. The oldest diver in the group is 87 years old. A strict hierarchy divides the divers into three categories: the bottom level, the hagun, includes beginners and older women, while the top level, sanggun, are expert divers who stay underwater for up to two minutes at depths of 10m.
Of the last remaining divers on Jeju Island, 80 per cent are over 60. “Haenyeo will be gone soon unless we have new recruits,” says Yang Hi-bum, a Jeju official.
The orange taewak is a float that carries the weight of the day’s catch – up to 60kg on a good day. It’s thought fishing on Jeju became exclusively female in the 1600s when foreign wars depleted the male populace; others think it was to circumvent state taxes – at the time, female income
Golden roe is picked from sea urchins for the local delicacy of seongge miyeokguk, a kelp-topped soup.
Kang Jung-ah smiles as she plucks a large abalone from a net; the most prized catch of the haul, the shellfish can fetch large sums.
The day’s catch ends up at the evening Five-Day Market or early the following morning at Jeju City’s Grandma’s Market.
Dinner is served
The result of a day at sea. Dinner is served up back on dry land.