rp_Jannelle-So_So-LA-300x170.jpgMarch is Global Women’s Month. March 8th is International Women’s Day when we celebrate the social, economic and political achievements of women past, present and future. Because of this, we will hear a lot of stories about the proverbial “girl power.” I’ve heard and told my share, in  my 20-year career as a print and broadcast journalist. But when it comes to women power, the female divers on Jeju island top my list.

Mermaids are legendary folkloric creatures that live in the water, enabled by their human upper body and the tail of a fish. In one of the nine provinces of South Korea, however, people have seen “mermaids.” They’re called haenyeo or “sea women” translated in English.

Haenyeos  in action.

Haenyeos in action.

Haenyeos are  the famous female divers of Jeju, representative of the matriarchal family structure on the island. After all, the island is said to be abundant in three things –  wind, rocks and women, not necessarily in that order. But when the population of women outnumber that of the men, you know who’s the boss. And these she-roes are the bosses who work…very hard.

Until the 19th century, diving was mostly done by men. But it became less profitable when higher taxes were imposed on male divers, compared to the women who did not have to pay any.  Because of this, women took over the diving industry which was also considered the lowest of all jobs. But since most places on the island relied on sea products, these women divers also became the breadwinners.

Female divers with their gears

Female divers with their gears

“Women are also more adaptable to diving since their relatively warmer-bodied than men and are more suited to swimming, compared to men with more body fat,” said Kelly, the guide who accompanied us around Jeju in September 2001, when I first met the haenyeos.

On Mara island, because sea products are the primary source of revenue before tourism started booming, these haenyeos became the head of their respective families. And because of these female divers, gender roles on the island were totally reversed. Often, the men would stay at home and look after the children; while the women would go out  and in the water, to earn a living.

“They’re not just income earners for their families, they’re also keeping a Korean tradition alive,” added Kelly. The haenyeos sing/chant a traditional song before entering the water. “The songs are usually about the dangers of diving and being under water.” And these performances have become a tourist attraction.

Despite the culture and tradition behind it, these women are living dangerous lives. Precarious, indeed, especially because these divers are not as equipped as a recreational scuba diver would be. All they have is a float to mark their location when they surface, a weeding hoe to pick up abalone and other shellfish that cling to the rocks; and a net, to hold their catch. Wearing a surf suit; and sometimes a lead-weight vest and goggles, they plunge into the water, as deep as 20 meters and hold their breath for 2-3 minutes. Once they come back to the surface, they make a distinct whistling sound called “sumbisori” – the sound of their effort to breathe in fresh oxygen and emit the carbon dioxide they accumulated from holding their breath under water, akin to the sound that whales and seals make.

“Maybe because we’re so used to it because we do it all the time, being under water is more peaceful for me,”  Sook Ja-Koh, a haenyeo we interviewed during our trip. “I know the dangers. But concentrating on staying alive while doing my job helps me to forget my day-to-day problems.”

That didn’t sound like a happy existence to me. Yet immediately I knew the haenyeos deserved my admiration – now and before, when it was even more difficult to maintain such a profession.

“30 years ago, there was no dive suit and other gears. We wore white cotton suits and a towel on our head. Then we worked for an hour, at the most,” said Sook who has been diving since she was about 12. Now she’s in her 50s.  Haenyeos usually dive at 10 years old, all the way to their 80s.

“In the winter, we would be very cold. We’ll be under water for about an hour, then warm ourselves by the fire for 3-4 hours.” Temperatures in Jeju during the winter vary between 0-10 degrees Celcius. “After 3-4 hours by the fire, our cotton suits would dry up; and it was time to get back in the water. In the summer, we are able to stay 2-3 hours in the water,” she proudly declared.

Freshest catch of the day, courtesy of the haenyeos - female divers on Jeju island, in Korea.

Freshest catch of the day, courtesy of the haenyeos – female divers on Jeju island, in Korea.

Andreas Weater, a European tourist, said: “I’m fascinated by the island. But the haenyeos are what to see here in Jeju. Really, really exciting.”

While the haenyeos are now attracting attention from all over the world, unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling and their way of life is slowly disappearing. A Jeju Weekly article published in May 2014, mentions that there are only 48 haenyeos left in Daepyeong-ri is one of 44 sea villages in Seogwipo City. The oldest diver right now is 84 years old.

Frankly, I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. On the one hand, I suppose since it’s dangerous for the female divers to be doing this job, it’s better for them to find a safer way to earn money. On the other hand, the end of this tradition will also be an extinction of this part of Korean culture that has stayed for more than a thousand years.

Nonetheless, the Korean government values the contributions of the haenyeos to Jeju island lifestyle and livelihood. That’s why it is mandated that only these female divers are licensed to sell fresh seafood products on the island. And believe me, this meal of fresh seafood on the island was one of the best meals I’ve had in my life… cheap, too! [END]

Jannelle So is credited for creating, hosting and producing America’s first and only locally-produced daily talk show for Filipinos, that ran for 8 ½ years under her leadership, making it the longest-running Filipino talk show outside of the Philippines. On her spare time, she loves to travel. This new column will document her sojourns as she shares what she learns an discovers on her trips. Connect to her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; or email her at sojannelle77@gmail.com.