Haenyeo: The Last Mermaids
Jeju Island’s remarkable sisterhood of haenyeo, free-diving grandmothers, is on the edge of extinction
“Jeju women are strong, energetic, and diligent,” says Youngsook Han, a professor at Jeju National University.
Westerners have called them the last mermaids on earth. It’s an appropriate designation: These women divers plunge up to 65 feet into the ocean with nothing more than their lungs and a wet suit, and they may not be around much longer. But unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the haenyeo, or the women of the sea, aren’t teenagers. Most are grandmothers. True, their wrinkled faces have a story to tell, but it’s no fairy tale. For hundreds of years, the haenyeo have struggled to survive as the primary economic providers of Korea’s Jeju Island. But now, because of the danger inherent in free-diving and the changing tides of women in the workplace, the cherished tradition is in jeopardy.
“Jeju women are strong, energetic, and diligent,” says Youngsook Han, a professor at Jeju National University. She grew up watching the haenyeo; their free-diving tradition—one that has been passed from mothers to daughters, many believe, since prehistoric times—even seemed commonplace. But it’s not: They are the only women on the planet who dare to do what they do. These gutsy grannies dive to unthinkable depths, without any machinery to aid their breathing, in order to nab the edible innards of the sea: abalone, squid, seaweed, urchins, octopuses, and small snails. They then profit from their dives by selling their catch, most of which is shipped overseas to restaurants, some even winding up on American sushi platters.
Many haenyeo whiz to work on motorbikes at 7 a.m. In a warehouse, they don rubber wet suits, glass masks, fins, and taewaks, orange floatation devices with nets that resemble giant basketballs. Metal tools in hand, they climb aboard a boat, ready to free-dive for hours as they fill their nets. The women have no formal training; they learned to dive from their mothers and grandmothers, building endurance over time. Jeju Islanders know the haenyeo are at work when they hear a whistling noise off the coast. The haenyeo make that sound, called sumbisori, when they inhale and exhale after rising to the surface. They can stay underwater two to three minutes, some even up to ten.
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