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Haenyo – The Diving Grandmothers of Jeju Island

The Korean Jeju islanders have something to be proud of – their grandmas are divers. It may seem surprising, but for the people of the island this has been a way of life for centuries now. This tradition, once a thriving profession that drove the economy of the land, is in fact, now fast deteriorating.

To understand more about the diving grandmothers, we need to go back a few hundred years in Korean history. Jeju Island lies around 53 miles to the south of mainland Korea. Given the geographical location, fishing has always been the major occupation of this Island. The surrounding waters are rich in exotic sea food like octopus, conch, abalone and urchin.

Photo via Western Confucian

Since large taxes were imposed on the sale of these items, men hardly ever dove in search of them. However, a loophole in the law allowed women divers to sell these creatures of the sea, tax free. This gave way to a large number of female divers around the 1800s. Slowly, this occupation grew to become a major driving force in the economy of the country. The women divers began to call themselves the haenyo.

The growing presence of the haenyo had major cultural implications as well. Since the economy thrived under their tutelage, it naturally gave way to the formation of a matriarchal society – where women were held equal, if not superior, to men.

Photo via Trip Advisor

There have been as many as thirty thousand haenyo on the small island in the past. Today, that number has dwindled to an unfortunate five thousand. Several factors have contributed to this. The foremost being the fact that most haenyo divers chose to educate their daughters, who in turn did not want to take up diving as a profession.  The ever growing tourism industry has also resulted in the slow demise of the haenyo population.

The average age of the diving women of Jeju is now around 50. There are divers as old as 65, and even 70. Some reports have suggested that there are only two haenyo in the entire island under the age of 30.

Photo via GwangJu

The beauty of the haenyo lies in the style of their free diving. They start from a community group house in groups, heading towards the sealine, dressed in their wet suits and armed with nets and other diving gear. Interestingly, they do not use oxygen tanks, as these would only slow them down. They engage in the activity for as long as five hours at a stretch, returning to the community house to sort out their catch.

 

Many haenyo women took an active part in the Korean resistance movement under Japanese occupation during the second world war. The haenyo are treated as heroes by the people of Jeju Island.

Sources: Kuriositas, CnnGo