Haenyeo : The last of the greatest generation of women divers.
By: Cris Merz
Jeju, Korea is not only the largest island of South Korea; it is also its own province. According to legend, three demi-gods emerged from Samsung on the northern slopes of Mt. Halla, South Korea’s highest mountain, and became the ancestors of the Jeju people. It is on this island that we are looking at perhaps one of the last of the greatest generations of women divers. Haenyeo (Hangul: 해녀; lit. sea women) are female divers in the Korean province of Jeju.
HAENYEO women took over the role of Free Diving
Though the tradition of free diving in Jeju dates back to 430AD, it wasn’t until the 18th century that women became the dominant force in the free diving trade. While their husbands and sons went to war, the women stayed back supporting their families. Eventually, women slowly took over the role of free divers, even when the men were home. This became common. They were better at it. Some people claim that they were better at staying warm; they could stay down longer and were more efficient. Training would often start at about 13 years of age.
The greatest generation of divers may be coming to an end.
The matriarchal family structure became common in Jedu as free diving for abalone, conch, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins down to about 65ft was extremely lucrative and it made the women who dove, sometimes 100 times in a single day (year-round), heads of families as the bread winners. By the 1960s, 21% of women on the island were free divers, providing 60% of the island’s fisheries revenue. However, that number is dropping rapidly and perhaps one of the greatest generations of women divers may be coming to an end, erasing a culture and a trade that was created out of need, rather than fun. Today, 98% are over the age of 50, with several over 80 years old.
SDI-TDI instructor and National Geographic photographer Y.Zin has been closely following the story and created her own awareness program in 2012 called the “Happy Hae Nyeo Project”. Along with many others; they have asked UNESCO to include haenyeo on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
“As I ran the diver project, I learned that although the diver culture is systematic, it loves competition but they also take care of each other.
They do not think that the ocean belongs to one person but is everyone’s property. That’s why they put in much effort to protect the ocean and think of the environment.”
When asked why the trade was fading, Y.Zin responded, “Young people these days avoid hard work, but today, it is not that they have to choose to go out into the ocean for their families’ survival.
The number of divers is decreasing because they themselves think it was not very worthwhile. But now the world is changing .The divers continue to go out into the ocean even if they are not in financial difficulties. I think that is because they know the importance of the community and are thankful for nature.”
The Jeju Government has tried to keep this tradition alive assisting with wetsuits and subsidizing their medical and accident insurance. However, it doesn’t seem like it will be enough to keep the tradition going. In 50 years, the number of haenyeo dropped from over 23,000 divers to around 2000 today. The choice is between becoming a diver or getting an education. Along with industrialization and change in economic avenues within the island and basic modernization, there is little incentive for young girls to take the baton and run with it.
Y.Zin adds, “I started this because I wanted to let many people around the world know about the diver culture I had learned as an underwater photographer for National Geographic.”
A trade that has lasted over a century and spread over many generations may soon be nothing but stories and tales of the women that dove day-in and day-out. Sharing the memory and telling these stories may be the best way we have to save a culture that lies on the brink of extinction.
Y.Zin is Korea’s first National Geographic Underwater Photographer who implemented high quality techniques and underwater model education for underwater photography, and also works as a well-known commercial photographer.
She has been working on photo works of movies, posters, advertisement and magazines; became the first Asian woman side-mount cave diver, and introduced Korean sea and diving in Jeju Island through Dive Expo and seminars held in many different countries.
As an SDI-TDI instructor, Y.Zin currently is training diving with rebreathers.
All pictures by Y.Zin. Learn more about her and view her photography here. http://www.yzinkim.com/