The sea is better than a mother. You can love your mother, and she still might leave you. You can love or hate the sea, but it will always be there. Forever. The sea has been the center of her life. It has nurtured her and stolen from her, but it has never left.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

The haenyeo, the free divers of Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea, are a matrifocal society where women bring home the bacon–or should I say abalone. They make their livelihood by foraging through the seas without breathing equipment. The cold waters, the breath work, the unpredictability of the ocean and a variety of other factors make this a physically demanding job and a perilous daily journey to earn one’s catch.

Artwork by Author Dipa Sanatani

For up to seven hours each day, the haenyeo dive deep into the ocean to forage for marine life such as: octopus, sea cucumber, sea urchins and abalone. They are able go under for about 30 seconds at a time, although some can hold their breath for up to 2 minutes. Women have greater reserves of body fat; which gives them a naturally higher ability to handle the cold waters around which their culture was born and has flourished. They have dominated and passed down their legacy from mother to daughter because they are more physically suited for it than men.

Economically, they were able to support their households and educate their family members through income gained by selling products to markets. It was evaluated that they greatly contributed to improving the prosperity of villages and the island economy as a whole.

Korea is often described as the most Confucian country on earth and women’s roles in the Peninsula were generally limited to the domestic sphere. It is thus remarkable that Jeju women created their livelihood by the sea by themselves for their economic and societal survival. The fact that Jeju is an island off the coast of mainland Korea made it more probable for it to develop a societal structure that was different to the mainland. Since 1895, these bold and daring women regularly went abroad seasonally, to earn money at sea in such regions as China, Japan and the mainland Korean peninsula.

Before the dive, prayers are made to Jamsugut, the Goddess of the Sea. They also created and developed folklore, traditional rituals, and festivals that represent their hard and wandering life in the deep sea and beyond.

The sustainable cultural tradition of the haenyeo of Jeju Island was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. Their future is threatened, however, as today there are only about 4,000 women registered as Haenyeo divers, out of a population of 600,000 on Jeju Island. This compares to 23,000 Haenyeo in the 1960s.

The dramatic volcanic island is a tourist island and many women choose other livelihoods or move to cities, while pollution and industrial scale fishing is degrading their seas and their catch.

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