JEJU - On a windy Tuesday morning, two elderly women are selling fresh abalone, conch, sea cucumber and sea squirt in plastic basins filled with seawater in front of the Haenyeo House on Saekdal Beach in Jungmun, southern Jejudo Island. A small plate of assorted seafood, cut up fresh to order, costs 20,000 won.
The women are female divers, known as haenyeo or jamsu, selling their catch.
"Right now is not a diving period. I will go into the water in a couple of days," says one of the divers, who wished to be identified only as Kim.
It is early spring and the water is still cold, but no matter, she says. At 75, she still dives a couple of hours at a time in the colder months and 5-6 hours in the summer, she boasts. A Jeju native, she cannot remember when she actually learned to dive.
"I live by the sea. It was only natural to play in the water as a youngster and by the time I was in my early teens, I was doing 'muljil,'" she explains. "Muljil" refers to diving and harvesting various marine products. "I know the landscape under the water like the palm of my hand. I know where to catch what. It is all in my mind's eye," she says.
Kim is one of 5,380 haenyeo on Jeju Island, of whom about 4,500 are active as of the end of 2013. Records show that the tradition of women divers on Jeju Island goes back many centuries. In a book on Jeju topography written in 1629, Joseon-period scholar Lee Geon noted that haenyeo harvested abalones, while a map of Jeju Island from 1702 depicts haenyeo diving in the water. During the Joseon period, the job of haenyeo was to harvest seaweed and abalone for the royal court in Hanyang, today's Seoul.
With the tradition of haenyeo at risk of dying out as the divers age ― the average age of 102 haenyeo who participated in a 2013 study of their life history was 77, the oldest being 97 ― and few young people taking up the physically taxing and dangerous work, the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province is seeking a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity listing for haenyeo. If haenyeo are listed next year, they will join 16 other intangible cultural heritage entries from Korea ― including the Jeju Chilmeoridang Yeongdeunggut, a ritual held to pray for calm seas, an abundant harvest and sea catch ― that are already inscribed.
Spirit of community
To become a haenyeo, one must join a fishing village cooperative of the village where one lives. Joining a fishing village cooperative requires the agreement of the members and a one-time payment of one million won to join the Fisheries Cooperative.
While it is difficult for an outsider to join a fishing village, members often pass on their diving rights to their daughters and daughters-in-law.
"Personal relationships are most important as muljil puts your life in danger. It is inevitable that a sort of cartel is formed," explained Kang Kwon-young, curator at Haenyeo Museum in Jeju.
Communal spirit is at the core of haenyeo culture as the divers are partners in ensuring each other's safety, yet competing for harvest.
An Mi-jeong, an anthropologist specialising in marine cultures at the Institute of International Maritime Affairs in Busan, lived in the northeastern coastal village of Gimmyeongni from April 2005 to March 2006 as part of her fieldwork on haenyeo. In "The Maritime Garden of Jeju Woman Divers," published in 2008, she relates an incident where she was publicly scolded for not following directions.
"I was recognised as a member and Sukhi (a haenyeo) was stopping me from moving in a direction where I may have been swept away by a strong current," she writes.
"There is no muljil without a friend," goes an old haenyeo saying.