Jeju island in South Korea, a UNESCO world heritage site, is always talked about its amazing natural landscapes, Lava caves & quirky museum. The hidden gem of this paradise island in South Korea is its Women Free divers or Jeju Haenyeo.
Most of these are elderly women who are 60 & above start diving at a pretty early age. They are fondly known as Grandma Divers or Jeju Island Mermaids. But do not mistake them for someone frail or weak. They can beat a great swimmer or diver any day.
Must read: 12 Awesome Things To Do In Jeju Island
Who is Jeju Haenyeo?
Hae means ‘Sea’ & nyeon means ‘ a woman’ so Haenyeo roughly translates into Woman of Sea. It is a community of women divers mainly residing in the Korean province of Jeju. They have been in the diving business for centuries.
When I went to Jeju island, I had no idea about Jeju Haenyeo. I mostly researched the places to visit in Jeju, popular food joints, etc. It is a shame that this phenomenal aspect of women free divers in Jeju doesn’t come up in search.
There are three types of Haenyeo or female divers Junggun, Hagun, and Sanggun. They are categorized depending on their diving experience. Sanggun being the most experienced divers provides guidance to other less experienced ones.
I remember going up to one of these amazing Haenyeo & asking about the diving experience. Although neither I could speak Korean nor they spoke any English yet we communicated through signs & guessing.
She showed me her costume, held my hand & showed the spot they usually dive at regularly. They even tried to explain me the process which I couldn’t understand.
The best thing about them is that they are always full of positive energy. Their smiling face can easily deceive their real age. Some of these women free divers are well over 75.
They do a song & dance routine when they come out of the sea. The hardships of life & adversities of the sea have not dampened their spirits at all.
Interesting read: Insta Week- Stunningly beautiful Jeju Island Photos
Interesting facts about Jeju Haenyeo
1. These Superwomen dive without any diving gear
These Sea Mermaids of Jeju Island has been diving since generations for sea bounty to support their families. They mainly collect Abalones, Sea urchins, Sea cucumber, Hijiki & Conches diving 10-30 meters inside the sea.
The astounding thing is they do not use any oxygen mask. They just use wet suits & goggle while diving.
It is fascinating to know that these women divers come from a matriarchy society where women are the main bread earners while male members of the family take care of the house & children.
Truth be told, when I saw these women dive for the first time, I was completely in awe. Actually, I kept looking at my cellphone to record the time. It is fascinating & scary at the same time.
It shows the amount of training & precision they need to control their body. They have abundant knowledge of the sea & marine life.
When you are in Jeju, you can’t afford to miss Women Diver’s Show. Watch them dive effortlessly & when they come out with the sea bounty, they give an impromptu performance. It is exhilarating to see their enthusiasm. And it’s all FREE!
2. Jeju Haenyeo can hold their breath for 3 Minutes under 10-30 meters depth
When it went on for 1,2, 3 minutes I was like ‘Please someone Save them’!
It was scary. A normal person can stay up to 25-30 seconds underwater, while these women stay underwater for close to three minutes.
A normal Haenyeo spends up to 7 hours a day in water to harvest seafood. They start the day around the sunrise & stay in the sea for several hours a day.
These brave Jeju Haenyeo dive up to 100 times a day. They usually collect the products with a spear or bare hands & put them in a net sack.
Every year they dive for 90 days during harvest season. It is not just a job but a culture thing for Jeju women free divers.
When the diver resurfaces they make a unique sound or whistling known as Sumbisori. It is a short break they take for inhaling enough oxygen before the next dive.
3. The History of Jeju Haenyeo dates back to 453 AD
In the olden days, most men were either away fighting wars or died in deep-sea ventures. The responsibility to run the household fell on the shoulders of women.
It is said that the Jeju Haenyeo fishing technique existed in the 17th century. The first reference of Jamnyeo or women divers was in a monograph of Jeju Geography.
After the Japanese Colonization of Korea in 1910, more women were encouraged to take up sea diving to support the family & pay the harvest as taxes to the government.
You will find the reference of Haenyeo in Samguk Saki, the historical record of the three Kingdom of Korea. It is believed that Pearls were presented to the king. The only way to get the natural pearls was to sea dive.
Initially, men were the main divers & women helped them with collection, sorting & sell. Later, the number of women divers surpassed the males & they started dominating the business.
There came a time when the ratio of men vs women was disturbed due to continuous war & other hazardous conditions. Women divers outnumbered men diver in the 18th century.
Nowadays it is primarily Jeju Haenyeo who dive to scoop the sea harvest while their husbands help them on land to segregate the produce & sell them in the local market.
4. The job of Jeju Haenyeo is called Muljil
The technique of diving in sea for bounty is called Muljil. The young girls as young as 7-8 years start to learn the techniques. In the community, young girls were encouraged to learn the skills so as to support the parents & later husbands.
The girls are taught the skills of diving, holding breath underwater, information about sea life along with many other crucial lessons. Once the girls are 15 years or older they begin diving. They are called Young Haenyeo.
It is important for these young divers to sense the water pressure, take note of the sea current & depth of water. Depending on their breathing capacity they must decide how deep they would go in the sea.
It might look easy to bystanders but Sea diving is a serious & dangerous job. These hardy women free divers brave cold & unpredictable sea to make a living.
5. Most of the Jeju Haenyeo today are above 60 years
The women divers gather at Bulteok, a small stone structure with changing facility & fire pit, by the seaside to prepare for the dive. It represents the community of women divers.
The structure is used to keep the equipment, protection from weather, training & other work-related activities.
It is pretty amazing to see these grandma divers taking such pleasure in diving. However, their training starts at a pretty early age.
They mostly start their training at the age of 7. Young girls learn to dive & practice to hold their breath. With practice and experience, they get a sense of water, its pressure, current helping them to dive deep without any safety gear or equipment.
In the 1960’s, the income from the Jeju Haenyeo amounted to 60% Jeju fishery business & around 40% of male population was unemployed. It was in sharp contrast to the otherwise patriarchal society in Korea.
The oldest active Jeju Haenyeo or woman free diver is 80 years old!
Where to see Jeju Haenyeon on Island?
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You will see Jeju Hanyeon or women free divers of Jeju at Sunrise peak also known as Seongsan Ilchulbong.
It is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site & top places to see in Jeju island. It was formed 100,000 years ago due to an underwater volcanic eruption. Due to the shallow sea bed, a bowl-like structure was formed creating a beautiful natural site.
You can watch the stunning sunrise at Seongsan Ilchulbong. People visit this place during the new year to watch the sunrise. It is considered a good omen to start the new year.
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I was amazed at their enthusiasm & love for life. The experience of meeting & watching these incredible women divers or Jeju Haenyeo would remain one of the best experiences I ever had in South Korea.
There are Haenyeo Schools & Museum in Jeju Island dedicated to this unique culture of women free divers. Jeju Government is worried that the culture would fade with time as there are hardly any new recruits for free diving.
Whenever you visit Jeju Island, make it a point to visit the place, meet these amazing women free divers in Jeju & watch their performance. They are skilled & brave women taking pride in their dangerous job. I bet, you will be awestruck too!