‘Haenyeo (also spelled haenyo) (Hangul: 해녀; lit. sea women) are female divers in the Korean province of Jeju. Known for their independent spirit, iron will and determination, the haenyeo are representative of the semi-matriarchal family structure of Jeju.:’ Wikepedia
Earlier this month I had the most incredible experience on Jeju Island – diving with the Haenyo women. The mermaid freedivers of Korea who have provided for their families for centuries. Kim Jee Eun brought me there to meet her 81 year old grandmother, Chun Ji- O, who took us out with their ‘crew’ to collect edible periwinkles from the crystal clear waters. It was the first time Jeen had ever been diving with her grandmother – a reflection of a tradition in decline…
The rocky, volcanic landscape of Jeju may be part of the reason why the water is so clear, and provides so much habitat for sea life. There are also strict rules set by the Haenyo in what can be harvested when and by whom. To create co-exsistance with the ocean and humans. I was amazed to see so much ocean abundance. When they are not in the ocean, the Heanyo are on the land growing food in small plots – healthy, local and sustainable.
It’s the complete contrast to large scale, industrial fishing and agriculture where the environment is destroyed and the delicate ecosystems are stripped of all life, products are shipped around the world until no one really knows where their food comes from and how it is produced. Diving with the Haenyo reminded me of that direct connection of what you put in your body and how all ecostystems need balance and time to replenish.
The diving itself was a beautiful experience – like a kind of meditation. Diving, gathering, surfacing – listening to the distinctive harmonious whistles and outbreaths of the Heanyo when they surfaced – a specialised form of breathing and communication developed over hundreds of years. As we were emerging for the last time, Chun hooked an octopus which, along with the shells, she immediately cooked up for our lunch.
These are the most badass, joyful, empowered grandmothers I have ever met – supporting their families and communities in a tradition that has continued for thousands of years. And they are proud of their tradition, which is now protected under the UNESCO cultural heritage. Sadly, like the case of the Ama divers of Japan, there are very few young girls who want to become Haenyo, and almost all of the 5000 divers are over the age of 60.
This experience, like meeting the Ama divers of Onjuku, Japan, is opening my eyes to the challenges that young women face in believing in themselves and standing as equals as the future unfolds. I truly hope that more young girls will find their way back to the ocean, not only finding a lifestyle from it, but finding ways to protect it so that it sustains many more generations of ‘Women of the Sea’.
Watch my youtube video below on my experience, shot all on GoPro HERO 7.
And click here to find out more!