Women of the Sea, who are they?
Haenyeo –" Women of the Sea" – are diving fisherwomen on the island of Jeju off the south coast of South Korea. They live in coexistence with the ocean, the waves and the storms. At great risk and without oxygen tanks, they dive for sea plants and sea animals.
The Haenyeo tradition is more than 1000 years old and originates from small opportunities to feed on the barren volcanic island of Jeju. Desirable marine products can be sold and provide a good income for the families. Haenyeo is traditionally the breadwinner of the family, while the men care for children and household. The culture has developed a unique organization based on a strong community and sustainable fishing. For generations, women have built their professional skills and professional pride.
Dive fishing around the island of Jeju is described in documents from the 10th century. Both men and women worked as divers until the 16th century, after which the profession was gradually taken over by women. The occupation is traditionally inherited, and girls are taught from an early age by their mother or another relative.
What led up to women working at sea while the men care for children and households? One theory is that a long time ago the work was being taxed – and because only men were obligated to pay taxes, they stopped diving. Another explanation may be that women's physics, with more subcutaneous fat, made them less exposed to cold water than men.
"The men were too cold to dive without diving suits. Women were cold, too, but we persevered."
Jeong-Ja Kim, 86 years and Haenyeo
At risk of life
The sea is a dangerous workplace and a Haenyeo knows that the sea can become her grave. Four to five divers die every year. Maritime traffic is always a danger, but most risks are found below the water surface: currents, tides and getting caught in floating seaweed. Accidents happen more easily if the diver is tired, cold or sick.
The biggest threat is mulsum: breathing in water. Every Haenyeo knows how long she can hold her breath and at what point she needs to go back to the surface. However, even experienced divers can be tempted by a desirable catch. If the diver is uncautious and rushes, the air is more rapidly consumed and may cause her breathing in water, mulsum.