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.
The grannies aren’t unusual only because of their unique diving capabilities. The economic independence they’ve created for Jeju’s women clashes with the Confucian patriarchy of Korea. But despite an intimate knowledge of foraging the sea, many haenyeo are still managed by men—who, except for a few cases, don’t dive themselves. That’s partly due to a massacre in 1948 and the Korean War, which greatly reduced the male population of Jeju Island. But it comes down to physicality as well: Anatomically, women have better endurance in the water because of their higher body-fat percentage.
The haenyeo drive no doubt is also a factor. “When they look at the sea, they see it as a working field,” says Brenda Paik Sunoo, the Korean American author of Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea. That work is determined by the lunar calendar and amounts to about 15 days per month. When the haenyeo aren’t in the water, many farm the land, harvesting onions, garlic, cabbage, flowers, and tangerines, which are sold at local markets. The women share the profits of the agricultural products—unlike the profits of their dives—equally. It’s a practice that exemplifies their sisterlike bond.
“What is most remarkable to me is the sense of strength, as well as community,” says Anne Hilty, an American psychologist who lives among the Jeju women. Sunoo elaborates: “When they’re together, they’re sharing everything.” They even share each other’s pain, from life’s first tide to its last. Haenyeo midwives have shepherded their younger sisters through childbirth and, in turn, healthy haenyeo regularly feed and bathe the elderly former divers. In 1999 a haenyeo and her daughter founded a shelter to assist survivors of domestic violence. The haenyeo sisterhood carries over into social activism as well. One day a month, they serve as guardians of the sea. On that day, they pass over treasures in search of trash: Styrofoam, cigarette butts, fish traps, and candy wrappers.
But now the haenyeo are dying out. In 1970, there were 15,000 of these women. By 2002, only 5,600 remained, more than half of them older than 60. Currently there are probably fewer than 2,500 left. The tradition is faltering in part because the job is dangerous. Rather than risk losing a catch, a haenyeo may risk her life by staying underwater too long, and most suffer pain in their extremities and joints. So today, young women are donning business suits rather than wet suits, especially as education has become open to females. “In former days, we women couldn’t help but work as haenyeo,” says Ku Chan-hwa, who is in her 80s. “There wasn’t any other way for us to earn a living.” But thanks to the money these haenyeo earned, they have been able to afford their daughters a rightful education, which has allowed them to leave the island for safe, white-collar jobs.
Despite the tradition’s dwindling, or perhaps because of it, writers and artists like Sunoo have descended on Jeju, intrigued by the grannies’ peculiar prowess. Tourism could help keep the tradition afloat, with the recent opening of a Jeju Island haenyeo museum.
Even the women’s grandchildren, who may never know the sea as a playground or a workplace, are learning to honor them. At the one-year celebration of the haenyeo museum opening, a group of Jeju kids sketched pictures of their submarine grannies. In those crayon and marker tributes, the free-diving women weren’t glamorized like the mermaids of Disney movies and fairy tales. Instead, they were shown as they truly are, harnessing the powerful sea for their families.
Alison Flowers’ work has appeared in The Advocate, Marie Claire, and other publications. Excerpted from Bust (October/November 2011), a feminist magazine with attitude and humor, “BUSTing stereotypes about women since 1993.”