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The Mermaids of Jeju – Korean Female Divers Haenyeo
The Mermaids of Jeju – Korean Female Divers Haenyeo
Have you ever heard the story of mermaids living on beautiful Jeju Island, off the coast of Korea? While driving along Jeju’s coastline, you might have come across one of them swimming amongst the black rocks. As you walked along the beach with your love, you may have spotted them coming to the surface, whistling for a breath of air. What would it be like to actually meet one of those mermaids?

The Mermaids are called Haenyeo

The mermaids living on Jeju Island are actually haenyeo, or Korean female divers. What do they do? Unlike fishermen who go out in boats or use a rod or line, these women dive in the ocean without any special tools to gather clams, abalone, or seaweed.

And they don’t go as fully equipped as scuba divers. All they need is a float to mark their location when they surface, a weeding hoe to dig up abalone and other shellfish that cling to the rocks, and a net to hold their catch. Wearing a lead-weighted vest and goggles, they plunge into the 20-meter depths where they stay underwater holding their breath for two or three minutes. They are so adapted to life beneath the sea, they actually could be mermaids. Once they come back to the surface, they make a whistling sound, which is their unique way of breathing out the carbon dioxide and breathing in fresh oxygen.

Traditionally, Koreans have aspired to have baby boys, because only a man was considered to be the head of a family, but Jeju was different. Here, the birth of a baby girl was so valued that the saying goes: “Have a baby girl, and we will throw a pork barbecue party; have a baby boy, and we will kick his ass.” Since it was the women who worked from morning till night every day, women held a special place in Jeju’s society.

In the past, island girls began gathering clams or abalone by the time they were ten years old. They would dive between six to seven hours a day, but also do farm chores. The common routine was to do farm work, go diving, and then go back to do more farm work. Because of the grueling daily life, female divers had a saying: “Better to be born a cow than a woman.” The life of a haenyeo was not necessarily unhappy, though.

Female divers usually worked in groups, and during breaks, they built a fire on the beach, dried their clothes, shared some food, and chatted. Diving was also a relatively good source of income. Jeju female divers enjoyed more freedom, independence, and self-respect than other women. They were not only skilled in gathering seafood, but also had great interest in various cultural and social issues. During the colonial period, they led the anti-Japanese campaign and also established cooperatives to preserve marine resources. They also worked to preserve the haenyeo culture. Haenyeos were awarded medals for their contribution during the anti-Japanese campaign, and saw the creation of a monument and a commemorative park in their honor, located in Hado-ri, Jeju-do.

Today, haenyeos play the role of guardians of the sea and the ocean’s ecological environment. Their cooperatives operate seafood restaurants and shops, explaining why some restaurants are named Haenyeo Hoetji (Seafood restaurant specializing in raw fish) and Haenyeoui Jip (House of Haenyeo).

While it is not known when the first female divers appeared in Jeju, they are believed to predate the Common Era. Ancient shrines honoring fishermen and female divers indicate that they have been around since humans began gathering food from the sea. And divers have long been a part of Jeju Island. A study conducted during the 1960s of the physiology of female divers (sponsored by the U.S. State Department and conducted by American and Korean scholars) named Jeju Island as the birthplace of Korean female divers. Divers born on the island migrated to other regions after they married. When the number of divers reached the market limits, some moved in search of areas with more abundant shellfish.

During the Japanese occupation, they even went as far as China, Russia, and Japan to make a living. Currently, however, the number of female divers has decreased sharply because of shark attacks and the heart risks caused by diving. In 2002, there were only 5,600 female divers, and more than half were 60 years or older. In ten years, the total number of divers will likely be only half of that number. If you chance to meet one of these special mermaids during your trip to Jeju, that would be your lucky day.

A Glimpse into the Lives of Haenyeo at the Haenyeo Museum

To learn more about haenyeos, be sure to visit the Haenyeo Museum in Jeju. Housed in a four-story building, the museum offers many interesting exhibits in a cozy atmosphere. It is located in Hado-ri, a leisurely seaside village in Jeju, where many haenyeos have traditionally lived. Nowadays, fewer young women entertain the idea of such a difficult job, so most divers are middle-aged women.

The best way to see the museum is to start from the gallery to the right of the entrance. Gallery 1 on the first floor has exhibits showing haenyeo’s way of life. You will find models of their homes as well as exhibits of their daily diet and household tools. On the second floor (Gallery 2), are exhibits of their working life such as tools and clothing. Also shown here are their contributions to the anti-Japanese campaign. On the third floor, there is an observation rest area with a view overlooking the sea. After enjoying the rest area, take the spiral staircase from the second floor to the first floor. This will lead you to Gallery 3, with an exhibit of the sea around Jeju. Outside the museum is a large open area with a lawn and statues, including the monument commemorating female divers.

The museum is a great source of information on haenyeos and the island’s fishing industry. While the organized exhibits are recommended, the lovely view from the museum and its beautiful architecture also add to the interest.

Haenyeo Museum in Jeju
Dates & Hours : March ~ October, 09:00~18:00 / November ~ February, 09:00~17:00
Admission : Above 18 - 1,200 won / Ages 12 to 18 - 900 won / Under 12 - Free
How to Get There : From Jeju International Airport, take bus No.100 or 200 and get off at Jeju Intercity Bus Terminal → Take a bus for Sehwa, Seongsan and get off in front of Jeju Haenyeo Monument in Hado-ri, Gujwa-eup (60 minutes ride)
Korea Travel Phone : +82-64-1330 (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)

>> Go to Jeju Haenyeo Museum

Enjoy Fresh Seafood at Haenyeoui Jip

While there isn’t a specific place to meet haenyeos, your chances will be greater if you visit one of the Haenyeoui Jip located near major tourist attractions or along the coast. These restaurants, operated by haenyeos, serve freshly-caught seafood. Main dishes include sea cucumber, sea squirt, octopus, abalone porridge, and hand-cut noodles. The restaurants can be found in Seopjikoji, Jungmun Beach, Seongsan, Sehwa, and other major tourist destinations, and are easy to find. And if you dine at a restaurant by the sea, you may even spot the female divers at work.

If they are not working in a Haenyeoui Jip, female divers may be selling their freshly-caught seafood at small stands at Yongduam or Jungmun Beach. While there isn’t a wide selection, the stands are quite popular among tourists because the seafood is inexpensive and fun to eat on the spot.

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Date   07/10/2008

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