The haenyo divers: Korea’s women of the sea

The haenyo divers: Korea’s women of the sea

With younger generations seeking modern careers, this ancient fishing tradition has been left to women up to 70 years old, and faces a tough future as tourism encroaches

Often referred to as Korean Mermaids, haenyo (women divers on Jeju and Udo Islands) can dive up to 20 meters, holding their breath for several minutes as they harvest the sea bed for abalone, sea urchin, octopus and seaweed. Yet such work in a prevailing Confucian society didn’t sustain itself without considerable costs. The haenyo of Jeju and Udo Island have fought for years protecting their rights against men, governments and even armies in order to make a living from the sea. 

And such traditions are now facing extinction. With government officials ramping up efforts to promote tourism to the islands, and with a younger generation of women eager to head to the mainland in search of education or simply a more modern way of life, the once highly revered trade is tapering off. 

In the 1960s, there were over 30,000 haenyo diving daily off the shores of Jeju and Udo Island. Today, those numbers barely amount to 5,000, with two-thirds being over the age of 60. With the heydays of the 1970s well behind them (seafood exports to Japan filled the pockets of divers, allowing them to send their daughters to school and pay for prime coastal settlements), haenyo are becoming too old to continue, and there's no younger generation to follow in their footsteps. 



Goh Soon-ja, 62, sets out with her team to a “hunting spot” in the early morning on Udo Island.


Two haenyo divers search for abalone and conch off Jeju Island’s lava rock encrusted shoreline. When waters are rough, the divers stay close to the coast, well out of harm’s way.


A haenyo diver carries her net to the boat on Udo Island. The women divers work up to five hours straight, going from one spot to another, before bringing back their catch.


This haenyo home is decorated with the trademark black lava stone prevalent on Jeju Island.


A statue honoring the long-standing Korean tradition some believe dates back 1,700 years. Theories remain mixed as to why it is regarded as a woman’s vocation. 


Divers are predominantly older, some as old as 70, so Kang Myeong-sook, pictured here at 54, is comparatively young. With many young women seeking professions in the tourism industry or leaving for college on the mainland, the tradition is slowing dying off.


An older haenyo lugs her heavy weight belt and gear to the boat.


An exhausted haenyo returns from an early morning dive to retire to the community’s group house on Udo Island.


A smaller haenyo house. The shelter acts as a base for groups to congregate in the morning to decide on which areas to target and to sort out the day’s catch on their return. 


Securing her net, a haenyo prepares for an early morning dive off Udo Island’s shoreline.


Hyeon Jeong-soon, 67, the eldest in the group, gives one final glance back before setting off in search of abalone and conch for the day.


The group setting off.


Taking up position. A large group of haenyo divers leaves the shores of Udo Island. Whereas many haenyoe divers go in to the water right from the shoreline, this particular group charters the choppy waters to reach their hunting spots for hours at a stretch.


Kim Soo-hye, 65, dives for abalone and sea urchin off the murky shores of Siheung-ri on Jeju Island.


Sea urchin. A much sought after commodity, this poisonous sea food is no threat to skilled divers as they know just how to handle them.


Haenyo House. Equipped with a dressing room, shower and storage facilities, it is here where the day’s catch is weighed and nets, wet suits and buoys are hung to dry.


Kim Soo-hye, 65, has been diving since she was 15 years old. Born and raised on Jeju Island, she recounts how she longs for the days when there was nothing but beaches as far as the eye could see. With government officials ramping up tourism efforts, the haenyo traditions face a tough future.


Jeon Do-yeon, made famous for her Cannes-winning role in "My Secret Sunshine", graces a signpost on Udo Island commemorating her role in “My Mother the Mermaid”.

 

Getting there

Flying is the best option. Jeju Airlines, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines all offer daily flights from Gimpo Airport (subway Line 5 and 9) to Jeju-do. Note that the newly launched Jeju Airlines provides flights up to 50,000 won less than the competition.

Originally from Ottawa, I spent five years in Holland before finally moving to South Korea. Having made Seoul my home for the last decade, I've had the opportunity to work for The Korea Tourism Organization (where I came up with the idea for my photoblog www.hermithideaways.com, HS Ad (where I wrote the slogan for Seoul City's global campaign) and freelance for Time Out, Conde Nast, Morning Calm (Korean Air's in-flight magazine) and Yonhap News, the country's largest news agency.

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