The Mothers of the Sea: Culture of Jeju Haenyeo <UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage>
While exploring Jeju Island along the sea shore, you may find some people wearing black diving suits and diving in the sea. These people are a special type of professional female divers called haenyeo. They are actually known as 'Mothers of the Sea'.
- UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage: Culture of Jeju HaenyeoThe Mothers of the Sea: Jeju Haenyeo
While exploring Jeju Island along the sea shore, you may find some people wearing black diving suits and diving in the sea. They’ll definitely catch your eye. These people are a special type of professional female divers called haenyeo. They may seem like mythical mermaid princesses, but they are actually known as 'Mothers of the Sea'. They may also be referred to (by some) as ‘Warriors against the Sea.’ The culture of Jeju haenyeo was officially recognized by UNESCO, for their Intangible Cultural Heritage. Would you like to embark on a journey to meet the haenyeo, hear their stories and experience their vitality?
Jeju Island is proud of the culture of haenyeo, which was assigned to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, in 2016. The more you know about Jeju haenyeo, the more you will understand and appreciate Jeju Island. Jeju Island is known for its distinctive beauty and abundance of nature. If you glance at Jeju, you can just find a beautiful and calm paradise on earth. But when you discover more about Jeju haenyeo’s life and culture, they will truly touch your heart. Experience the true essence and splendor of Jeju Island, with the story of brave marine women: Jeju haenyeo.
Haenyeo are female divers. The term is composed into two parts. Hae means ‘the sea’ and nyeo means ‘a woman’. People generally call them haenyeo, but haenyeo living in Jeju have called themselves jamnyeo (which literally means ‘a diving woman’). They may also refer to themselves as; ‘jomnyeo,’ or ‘jomnye,’ in Jeju dialect. Jeju Island is the largest and southernmost island of Korea. Jeju Island was initially created by volcanic eruptions, around 1.2 million~10,000 years ago. The island was not well suited for rice farming, because of its scarce land (due to previous volcanic eruptions), and also because of water drains. (Total agricultural land in Jeju is less than 30%.) Instead, it had an abundance of rich seafood and seaweed such as abalones, top shells, sea cucumbers and hijiki. In this background, Jeju people pioneered their life gaining most of their resources from the sea.
Jeju men usually went to the sea by boat to fish. In the past, there was insufficient access to information, about predicting weather patterns and wind speed. Boats were easily shipwrecked by sudden title waves or hurricanes. If a man vacated the island, nobody could guarantee his survival. At first diving into the deep sea and collecting seafood was a man’s job. Women usually dived into shallower areas of the sea, compared to men. Due to lack of men, a great deal of women had to dive into the deep sea to get seafood. As sea diving became a female-dominated industry, many of the haenyeo subsequently replaced their husbands, as the primary laborer.
Jeju haenyeo has a very long history. There is a record that a pearl was laid from Seomna (an old name of Jeju, 섭라). This came from a book known as ‘Samguksagi (삼국사기)’ as well as a book entitled ‘Goguryeo bongi (고구려본기).’ These writings propose that diving existed, before the period of Three Kingdoms of Korea.
After the Joseon dynasty opened a port, in 1876, Japanese came to the sea of Jeju for fishing operations, which led to fishery falling into disrepair. Haenyeo left their original base to find a sufficient quantity of seafood and sought out other provinces in Korea, as well as internationally, in nations such as; Japan, China and Russia. Many families relied on haenyeo for the majority of their income. Some haenyeo settled down on the land, and taught the locals how to dive. This helped contribute to economic growth, in these new regions. Haenyeo seen in the world today, originally came from Jeju.
There is one proud episode where haenyeo devoted themselves to their town. One day in Jeju (in 1950), whole classrooms of a school were eradicated by a large fire, and thus, students lost their school. At that time, Jeju was very poor because this occurred after Korea’s liberation from the Japanese occupation. Moreover, the Korean War occurred in that same year. Haenyeo living in that village donated all incomes from collecting seaweed, in order to rebuild the school. Jeju erected a monument for the contribution of haenyeo in 1961. Haenyeo has been a foundation of Jeju economy.
Jeju haenyeo is the living history of Jeju. They had improved the lives of those around them, not giving into foreign influence in Jeju Island, which is surrounded by the sea from all directions.
Little girls in Jeju who played near the seashore became haenyeo, and followed in the footsteps of their mothers. Haenyeo fended off fear to dive into the dark, cold sea, with other haenyeo friends. They valiantly jumped into the sea even if they were pregnant. The haenyeo’s life is weary, but the sea is honest, and their efforts are definitely rewarded. The sea gives haenyeo wisdom and richness. They find value through diving in the sea, which embraces them.
Sumbisori (숨비소리), is a rapid panting sound (gasping for air), made by haenyeo immediately after diving. It sounds like a whistle. Haenyeo usually hold their breath for one to two minutes, while submerging for 10m depths without any oxygen or equipment. It is a raw sound from human breath, which is uttered just after coming back from the underworld. Sumbisori has shown that haenyeo do not give up when life becomes difficult, but rather they adapt to their arduous environment. Haenyeo usually dive for one to two hours, when they have access to conventional diving suits. This is due to the fast decrease, in their body temperatures. Afterwards, they would take a rest and warm their body. However, after they started to wear rubber diving suits, their working time increased, and they began to stay in the cold water longer. It caused haenyeo to fall sick, much more frequently than before. Rubber diving suits are buoyant, so haenyeo wear led in their waste, which leads to chronic backaches. Most haenyeo also get decompression sickness, but quite a lot of old haenyeo are still active. According to the 2017 statistics, 679 of haenyeo who were over 80 years old, officially counted as having an active status.
The Jeju government is trying to keep the culture of haenyeo alive despite the decreasing population as well as the aging of the haenyeo people. Systematic haenyeo training schools were established in Jeju, which aim to produce skilled haenyeo divers, at a young age. The Jeju government is also supporting the entire medical fees of ambulatory care. The haenyeo are Jeju’s pride. Their traditional survival skills are also a form of genuine empowerment of Jeju women. Their existence gives us the courage, to walk confidently towards to the future.
Haenyeo has a very unique community and communal culture. Wind and tides are very important whey they dive. Diving is often performed as group work, to reduce the risks from the sea. This enables haenyeo to protect themselves. Diving alone is very dangerous. They performed an exorcism before diving to pray for safety of their life as well as for an abundance of seafood. In addition, they sang labor songs together, on a boat, while rowing themselves to shore. The bulteok (불턱) was a place surrounded stone walls, where haenyeo got together before diving, or before making a decision. They also used this location to; change clothes, share information, and to take a rest from diving. They also could light a small fire, in the middle of bulteok, to warm their wet bodies. To improve haenyeo’s working environment, new, modern bathhouses were built. About 70 bulteok still remain in Jeju today. Some local bigwigs and landowners of Jeju knew the difficulties that haenyeo faced in other places, when they left Jeju. Thus, they founded the haenyeo union to protect haenyeo’s rights, in the 1920’s. Haenyeo never leave their community. Regardless of how much seafood one haenyeo harvests or how little seafood one haenyeo collects, they gather all the seafood together, and evenly share what they have harvested. They respect and help one another as inseparable lifetime companions.
When haenyeo dive, they do not have any scuba gear or air tanks. Thus, they should hold their breath as much as they can, while collecting food from under the Sea. The value of haenyeo’s excellent diving skills are priceless. Haenyeo’s conventional diving suits consist of mulsojungi (물소중이) for bottoms and muljeoksam (물적삼) for tops. They also wore mulsugeon (물수건) as a swimming cap. These caps were mostly made of cotton. In addition, the tewak (테왁) is a type of tube used for floating. It was made of a gourd in the past, but now a Styrofoam is used instead. Haenyeo put this under their breast, when they swim. Tewak has a net called mangsari (망사리), which haenyeo use to store and preserve their seafood. From the early 1970s, gomuot (고무옷, meaning rubber suits) appeared. This new suit helped haenyeo to stay in the Sea longer and enabled them to keep working effectively. Consequently, it also led to an increase in income. Furthermore, there is also some extra equipment that haenyeo currently use, including: the round-shaped diver’s goggles; bitchang (빗창), kkakkuri (까꾸리), and so on. Haenyeo sometimes collect mugwort washed up on the shore, and use this (along with saliva,) to clean their goggles and to defrost them. Bitchang and kkakkuri are also used to remove abalones that are attached to rocks from under the Sea. Modern haenyeo also put on flippers when diving.
If you would like to know more of Jeju haenyeo, it is highly recommended to visit the Jeju Haenyeo Museum. It opened in 2006, in accordance with Jeju people’s desire, to preserve the culture of haenyeo. It has three exhibitions, excluding the children’s exhibition. These are: Haenyeo’s life, haenyeo’s workplace and haenyeo’s lifetime. It runs several programs to let other people know more about haenyeo. Various displays and documents exist within these exhibits, which explain in great detail, about the culture and rich history of haenyeo. Here, you can see a proud vestige of haenyeo. The details of this location are included below.
In many beautiful marine cities around the world, there are a great deal of providers, offering scuba diving. Scuba diving is the activity of swimming underwater, while using special breathing equipment. You can commonly enjoy scuba diving, at many beaches. However, in Jeju, some locations provide haenyeo experience activities. Only some haenyeo training schools or collaborated providers, can run haenyeo themed activities. Even though you cannot swim, you can still enjoy diving. (Special diving suits also make swimming possible.) Then, you can find seafood attached to the rocks, or hidden under some stones. There is an abundance of mystery for you to discover, under the sea. Additionally, you can also fill your tewak mangsari (net), with seafood like octopus and abalone. Do not forget to bring swimming suits or extra undergarments that you will wear inside your diving suits. Tying back long hair before wearing diving suits is also recommended. One more thing you need to understand, is that the conditions of the Sea (along with the weather) are extremely important to consider (before diving). Early reservation is essential, but whether you can experience the activity, depends on the weather conditions. Inquiry via E-mail will be better for English users. The activities are possible during the summer season, which lasts from June until around the middle of October. The fare is between approximately 30,000 KRW~50,000 KRW but it is subject to change during every season.
Isla means ‘island’ and bonita means ‘pretty,’ in Spanish. Isla Bonita depicts Jeju, as ‘the beautiful island.’ This provider is about 15 minutes away from the airport, in front of the glimmering Sea of Aewol. The owner runs an accommodation named ‘Sydney hotel,’ and Isla Bonita, is located in the same place. This information should assist you to find the location of this provider, much easier. The owner swims early in the morning, at the start of every day, to ensure that the conditions of the Sea, are fit for diving. If you want to experience it, at a time outside the summer season, an early inquiry should be made to the owner. Additionally, do not be discouraged if you are unable to gain any seafood. The owner will collect some murex for you. Eating fresh raw murex is another joy of this activity, if you like tasting raw fish. He will also take an underwater photo of you.
Address: 953-19, Aewolhaean-ro, Aewol-eup, Jeju-si, Jeju-do
Phone: 010-2365-6884, 010-2313-7412
Opened in 2015, Beophwan Jomnyeo Village Haenyeo School, is a haenyeo training school to communicate the culture of haenyeo, to the next generation, which will hopefully produce young haenyeo. Haenyeo experience activities are led by real haenyeo of Beophwan. If there are over five people who want to listen to story of haenyeo from real haenyeo, you can look around the Haenyeo village for free ‘walking with haenyeo’ cultural activities. Pre-booking these activities is essential.
Address: 1, Beophwan-ro, Seogwipo-si, Jeju-do
If you are lucky, you can find haenyeo diving and collecting seafood, while passing a coastal road. If you see an orange-colored tewak floating above the Sea, it indicates that there must be haenyeo. The fishing grounds of Jeju are thoroughly protected by fishing village societies, and the fisheries' cooperation union in Jeju. They regulate qualifications for harvesting sea products, as well as periods allowing and prohibiting harvesting. They also transact seafood with each other, without mid-distribution. You can see the moment they transact, immediately after haenyeo harvested seafood. Even if you do not have a chance to meet haenyeo while traveling, do not be disappointed. There are several ‘haenyeo restaurants’ ran by fishing village societies, where you can taste fresh sea products caught by haenyeo. You should not miss the opportunity, to experience the freshest seafood imaginable. Savor the extreme freshness of the Sea on your tongue, and play a part to conserve culture of Jeju haenyeo.
Address: 623-6, Hallimhaean-ro, Hallim-eup, Jeju-si, Jeju-do
If you are lucky, you can find haenyeo diving and collecting seafood, while passing a coastal road. If you see an orange-colored tewak floating above the sea, it indicates that there must be haenyeo. The fishing grounds of Jeju are thoroughly protected by fishing village societies, and the fisheries' cooperation union in Jeju. They regulate qualifications for harvesting sea products, as well as periods allowing and prohibiting harvesting. They also transact seafood with each other, without mid-distribution. You can see the moment they transact, immediately after haenyeo harvested seafood. Even if you do not have a chance to meet haenyeo while traveling, do not be disappointed. There are several ‘Haenyeo restaurants’ ran by fishing village societies, where you can taste fresh sea products caught by haenyeo. You should not miss the opportunity, to experience the freshest seafood imaginable. Savor the extreme freshness of the sea on your tongue, and play a part to conserve culture of Jeju haenyeo.
Ojo Haenyeo’s House is probably the largest among other haenyeo restaurants. It provides a great environment for group tourists as well as for an individual traveler. Abalone porridge (전복죽) is their signature dish and has a delightful taste. Unstinted abalones can be found in a bowl of abalone porridge. Raw abalone (전복회) is nice as well. You can also order octopus (문어), top shells (소라) and sea cucumbers (해삼). Another positive is that it is open from 6 a.m. for early birds.
Jamnyeo Haenyeochon is run by the haenyeo community of Hamdeok. Sea urchin and top shell porridge (성게보말죽) is the most popular dish in this restaurant. Abalone porridge (전복죽), sea urchin seaweed soup (성게미역국), cold raw abalone soup (전복물회), cold raw top shells soup (소라물회), cold raw sea cucumber soup (해삼물회), cold raw cuttlefish soup (한치물회), parboiled octopus (문어숙회) and grilled abalones (전복구이) can all be ordered. Of course, you can also order raw seafood. But please be mindful that you are not able to have some dishes, if they are out of season. You can enjoy dishes by haenyeo, which taste just like the meals, your mother cooks. It also faces the beautiful and clean sea (from front of the restaurant).
Cold raw Whitesaddled reeffish soup and cold raw cuttlefish soup, are the most popular dishes in Bomok Haenyeo’s House. Cold raw fish soup is generally cooked with red pepper paste-based sauce. However, this restaurant offers soybean paste based-sauce, which has different flavors. Grilled fish is also served for free when you order a main dish, like cold raw fish soup. Raw Whitesaddled reeffish and raw cuttlefish can be ordered as well.
- ※ The above information was written on 2018-12-04. Please confirm the information prior to your trip.
- ※ Unauthorized use of the content above (text, photos and videos) is prohibited and subject to copyright by the Jeju Tourism Organization.