Haenyeo refers to “women of the sea” who hunt and gather seashells such as clams and abalone with nothing but a basket and sickle and wearing a wetsuit.
The long tradition of the haenyeo has been passed from mother to daughter as a means for making a living in Korea especially in Jeju Island. Haenyeo represented Jeju, also known as samdado, which means an island full of three things, for water, rocks and women: haenyeo. According to Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, the number of haenyeo reached 26,248 in Jeju Island during its prime time in the 1960s; but the number of haenyeo barely reaches 5,000 today, of which 92.7 percent are 50 years old or older.
“Mainly with the emergence of fishing boats, it has become very hard to make money as a haenyeo and it is still a very tough job,” Kim said. “This drove young ladies out to cities searching for high-earning jobs, leaving no young haenyeo behind.”
Kim was one of the young women in Mara Island who never expected to become an underwater hunter for seashells. Seeing her mother, aunt and grandmother suffering from the rough life of a haenyeo, she left her hometown and worked as a banker in the city. When she came back to her hometown for a visit after her marriage, she disappointedly found it looking very different from that of her childhood.
“Mara was a very small town where everyone knew how many spoons each family owned,” Kim said. “But when I came back, it had become a famous travel spot, due to the commercialization from out-of-town business owners. The folksy atmosphere I remembered was nowhere to be seen.”
Then, Kim decided to become a haenyeo and revive her hometown and its tradition. At first, the seniors who had worked in the sea and later became her mentors doubted her decision, warning her of the unseen dangers.
“The tradition of haenyeo was in peril and about to disappear,” Kim said. “I had the strong will to learn and become a haenyeo myself to preserve the tradition and show that haenyeo are still here, alive.”
Five years have passed since Kim decided to become a haenyeo, but she is still a junior compared to the experienced senior haenyeo. The more Kim works and dives with senior haenyeo, who are referred to as sanggoon-haenyeo, the deeper she falls in love with the sea, in spite of its dangers.
“My aunt used to say, ‘a haenyeo leaves her life behind when going to the sea,’ meaning that it is dangerous, possibly even leading to death. But I believe my destiny lies in the sea,” Kim said. “Every time I dive and go underwater, I feel ‘this is my calling.’ We hold our breath for a long time, searching for ‘something’ to catch, and the joy and triumph that come after finding a little abalone or a shell cannot be described in words.”
Kim does not merely consider working underwater as a means of earning money. She appreciates what the sea offers and the unique culture of the haenyeo community.
Haenyeo have a strict class relationship, work system and friendship among themselves. Every moring, they gather at around 6:00 to 8:00 am, go to work and return home together. At the sea, they always work as a group, protecting each other. Not only taking care of themselves, but also the nature, haenyeo take a route they developed topographically at all times for safety and for protection of the marine ecosystem.
“We do compete, but at the same time, we protect each other and the sea, trying to live in harmony,” Kim said. “We do not blindly sweep everything for money. For example, during spawning seasons, we ban ourselves from catching any marine product.”
Kim hopes to become a sanggoon-haenyeo in the future in order to create an atmosphere where more young women want to work under the sea and actually teach the young, junior haenyeo.
“Haenyeo are very strong yet beautiful ladies who know how to live in harmony with nature and others,” Kim said. “I wish to pass down this tradition to future generations and, hopefully, restore the precious values my hometown Mara had.”