Diving into the Deep: Jeju's Fearless Female Divers 🌊

by Larissa Tsui

Let’s plunge into the world of Jeju’s female divers! Known as Haenyeo (해녀), these extraordinary women have been a vibrant part of Jeju’s culture for centuries so I think their captivating stories and incredible skills are worth sharing. Haenyeo are celebrated as Jeju’s most valued treasures today. They were even added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list! Haenyeos have the ability to hold their breath for several minutes, as they plunge into the chilly waters, as deep as 30 metres! So they can make a living by gathering seafood such as abalone, octopus, sea urchins and more. They know the waters like lands and know exactly where to look for what. Not only can they knowledgeably navigate the waters, but Haenyeo also are able to recognize sea geography, changing tidal currents, and habitats of marine life. 


The roots of Haenyeo culture can be traced back to as early as the 17th century. Back then, men were often away, either fishing or working in the fields, leaving the women to take charge and provide for their families. These women are true heroes! Fearlessly dive into the waters to make a living, all while taking care of their families too.  Beyond their remarkable diving skills, what truly sets the Haenyeo apart is their camaraderie and the sense of community they foster. They work in groups and support each other both in and out of the water. These women form tight-knit bonds, sharing their knowledge and stories as they dive together. It's like an underwater sisterhood, where age and experience are respected and celebrated.


Can you imagine diving equipment in the 17th century? Before wetsuits were invented, these incredible women would wear white cotton clothing and plunge into the waters with just a knife to harvest seafood while holding their breath. Back in the day when wetsuits weren’t a thing yet, they could only handle an hour in the freezing waters during winter. Once that hour was up, they hopped out and sat by the fire for 3 to 4 hours to warm up and dry off. After this break, they would jump right back for another hour of diving. In summer, these incredible divers could stay in the water for up to a whopping 3 hours before taking a break. Once wetsuits came into the scene, this changed Haenyeo’s diving game completely. The wetsuits allowed them to stay in the waters for a mind-blowing 5-6 hours, even during the chilly winter months. 


Traditionally, girls started training as Haenyeo as young as 11 years old. Beginning in shallow waters, young girls would collect seaweed and then work their way up to more challenging depths. But now there are declining numbers of Haenyeo, as they have become a victim of industrialization. There is an aging population among Haenyeo, but that does not stop them! In 1970, 55% of Haenyeo were between 30 to 49 years old, and 14% were 50 or older. As of 2014, 98% of Haenyeo are over the age of 50, and one of the oldest Haenyeo is over 80 years old! Age does not stop these incredible women and their commitment to preserving their heritage is truly admirable. 


For those lucky enough to visit Jeju Island, you can actually witness Haenyeo in action! There’s even the Haenyeo Museum which offers an opportunity to learn about their history, dive into their daily lives and understand the struggles they face. And if you’re extra lucky, you may even be able to catch a live performance too at the Haenyeo Women Diver Show in Seongsan Ilchulbong (성산 일출봉).


Jeju's female divers, the Haenyeo, are more than just skilled divers. They are the embodiment of strength, resilience, and community. Their awe-inspiring ability to navigate the depths of the ocean, their deep-rooted bonds, and their unwavering commitment to their heritage make them oceanic heroes. So, the next time you find yourself on the shores of Jeju Island, make sure to dive into the world of the Haenyeo and experience the magic firsthand!

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