Long ago, in the 17th century, there was a group of “sea women”, the haenyeo, who were female divers in the Korean province of Jeju.
It was a time when many men went to sea to fish or row warships, and offshore diving largely became women’s work. Stories also state that women simply were more adapted for the job, with their bodies keeping them warmer and being more suited to swimming than a male, along with more body fat. Therefore, they often became “the head” of their family. On Mara Island, where sea products accounted for almost all sources of revenue before it became increasingly attractive as a tourist site, gender roles were entirely reversed. Often men would look after the children and go shopping while the women would bring in money for the family.
They are representative of the matriarchal family structure of Jeju.
What’s all in day’s work for the haenyeo then and now is impressive. They plunge into the cold sea, disappear for minutes and return to the surface with octopus, sea urchin, seaweed and shellfish. They make a living out of harvesting the sea floor, free diving to depths of 20 meters and holding their breath for minutes. Time in the water varies by season, from as little as 20 minutes during the winter to as long as 95 minutes in the summer. Dives have been observed to last approximately one minute, with 30 seconds spent on the surface between dives. Routine diving occurs in shallow water, but deeper excursions, to 15 or even 20 meters, have been observed. The divers must also contend with other dangers such as jellyfish, and sharks.
“Jeju women are strong, energetic, and diligent,” says Youngsook Han, a professor at Jeju National University.
In contrast to the rest of Confucian Korea, the birth of a girl, a future diver, would be cause for celebration In Jeju culture.
Administrators from Seoul had even tried to bar the women from diving, ostensibly because they exposed bare skin while at sea. The haenyeo’s historical roots made their efforts unsuccessful.
Starting from the late 1970s, exports of sea products to Japan such as abalone and conch, made the sea women richer than ever, allowing them to fix their houses, build new ones in Jeju City and send their daughters to college.
However, there is a threat to the historical haenyeo’s continued success: with their daughters choosing to work in the island’s tourism industry or in the big cities, the haenyeo will most likely disappear. While in 1950 there were as many as 30,000 haenyeo on the island, in 2003 there were only 5,650 sea women registered as divers, of whom 85% were over 50 years old. In the early 1960s, 21% of women on the island were free divers, providing 60% of the island’s fisheries revenue.
And with the number of sea women declining and tourism giving Jeju men more opportunities, it is unclear what will happen to their daughters’ status in their communities and home, though it is unlikely that this rare matriarchal family structure will continue to survive. As of 2014 only about 4,500 haenyeo, most aged over 60, were still actively working.
The last living mermaids are becoming extinct.
Photo credit: National Geographic