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Also known as the Amazons of Asia, the extraordinary female freedivers of South Korea’s Jeju Island are the closest thing to professional mermaids the world has ever seen. This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 17: Myths and Legends.
Sitting on the windswept volcanic beach, whistles echo all around me. Hooded heads emerge from beneath the waves, closely followed by more of that unique sound: half-shriek, half-high-pitched wail.
This is the remote island of Jeju, a tropical haven off South Korea’s southwest shore. And the whistles announce the emergence of a team of haenyeo, the legendary “sea women” of the island, who’ve been diving these waters and harvesting the seabed for more than 400 years.
As each haenyeo breaks the surface to fill her floating net with spoils, she empties her lungs using a time-honoured technique which expels carbon dioxide efficiently – and which informs her companions of her location – before diving again.
In Jeju’s matriarchal society, haenyeo have been the main breadwinners for centuries. Even today, a handful of husbands shuffle about sheepishly on the shore while their wives plunge to depths of up to 20 metres, collecting everything from shellfish and seaweed to abalone and – most valuable of all – conch shells.
With the ability to freedive like this for up to four hours straight – holding their breath for two minutes or more each time – there’s little doubt that this group of women are preternaturally strong. But what’s even more remarkable is their average age. Pulling off diving masks as they splash from the shallows under bulging nets, it’s apparent that many of these eel-like swimmers are well into their seventies and even eighties.
“Some of us have been working like this for 65 years or more,” says 87-year-old Hyun Sun-jik, as she warms up inside the group’s bulteok – a traditional haenyeo meeting place and drying room – after her day’s work. “Yes we are very old, but as soon as we’re beneath the water, we’re very young again.”
One of Hyun’s more junior colleagues, Go Young-ja, 79, sits alongside her in a similar black rubber drysuit, diving belt and flippers. “The sea makes you healthy,” she says. “Just moving under the water makes you feel incredibly alive. Working like this, you feel like a mermaid.”
That’s certainly one of the nicknames acquired by these extraordinary women; there are plenty of others too, from “Korean Sirens” to the “Amazons of Asia”, thanks to their renowned physical skill, lung capacity and ability to withstand underwater pressure.
Out here on Jeju – where the volcanic crags, plentiful beaches and tropical vegetation have attracted comparison with both Bali and Hawaii – the haenyeo have been a treasured and respected part of life since the 17th century. But over the last two generations, their numbers have dwindled. In the 1950s, there were an estimated 30,000 haenyeo working these waves, but at last count that number had dropped to below 5,000.
“Many young women leave for jobs in big cities like Seoul and Busan and do not come back,” shrugs Hyun. “If the younger generation do not follow us, there’s a danger that we haenyeo could die out altogether.”
Fortunately, others have noticed this worrying trend too, and action is being taken. Later this year, Unesco is expected to officially list the haenyeo as part of mankind’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, affording the sea women a level of international support and protection that befits their legendary status.
When the gaggle of students nally emerge on to the jetty, however, their nets are virtually empty. Learning to be a mermaid clearly isn’t easy.
“The training is tough, but building a positive mindset is all part of it,” says Lee Hyun-kyeng, a 26-year-old who has own south from Seoul in the hope of starting a new life as a haenyeo. “I believe it’s important for young people to get involved and keep the old traditions alive.”
One of Lee’s classmates is impossible to miss: Lizzi Maltby, a 26-year-old blonde from Wisconsin, who is nudging 6ft in her dripping bare feet.
“This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while to get in touch with the history and the culture of Jeju,” says Maltby, who works at an international school on the island. “The physical training is hard, but the theoretical side – learning about the haenyeo’s history, legends, songs and beliefs – is absolutely fascinating.”
At Jeju’s official haenyeo museum in the nearby fishing village of Hado-ri, it’s a similar story, with everything from the importance of tides (or multte, which literally translated means “water time”) to the lack of male divers analysed. (Some say this began because of 17th-century wartime conscription, or higher taxes on male earnings, while there’s another theory that women simply have more subcutaneous fat and a higher shivering threshold, making them better equipped for this kind of diving.)
From the state-of-the-art museum to the new vocational schools and the intervention of Unesco, it looks like the future of these extraordinary South Korean sea women will be safeguarded for now. Times have been tough over recent years, but the haenyeo have proved themselves to be tougher – and now the multte is nally turning back in their favour.
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