Culture of Haenyeo Women Divers
A haenyeo is a woman who dives into the sea to collect sea cucumbers, abalone, and seaweed as her profession. She does this without the help of mechanical devices, such as oxygen tanks.
- Jeju’s Women DiversThe Culture of the Haenyeo
A haenyeo is a woman who dives into the sea to collect sea cucumbers, abalone, and seaweed as her profession. She does this without the help of mechanical devices, such as oxygen tanks. As the saying goes, “To spend in this life, I earn in the afterlife,” the haenyeo risks her life every time she dives into the sea. When the haenyeo’s work is finished in the water, she comes out to farm the fields. That’s the only way to make a decent living, and she does it all while raising and nurturing her children.
This is why the life of a Jeju haenyeo symbolizes hardship and strength. It is the symbol of the haenyeo, and the symbol of the land of Jeju, which thrived even in harsh conditions.
The vast majority of Korean haenyeo are located on Jeju Island. In the past, Jeju haenyeo migrated to the mainland and settled along the shores, and also emigrated overseas to Japan, Dalian and Qingdao in China, and Vladivostok in Russia. In the mid-20th century, about 2,800 Jeju haenyeo moved to mainland Korea, and 1,600 emigrated overseas.
According to official records, Korean haenyeo have existed for one thousand years. In the early years, men and women worked together, and men were called “pojak” while women were called “jamnyeo". It is presumed that men caught abalone and women collected marine plants such as seaweed, with women largely outnumbering the men.
However, the number of men was low overall in the population due to a high portion of men dying on the rough seas while boat fishing. As a result, there weren’t many men to harvest the abalone for government taxes, so women gradually took over the job out of necessity. This began the culture shift of women becoming the sole divers of Jeju.
Jeju women are accustomed to the ocean from an early age due to the island environment. In their early teens, they practice swimming and diving in the sea. In their mid-teens, they make their debut as a haenyeo, and by their late teens, they gain the experience to become a real haenyeo, equipping her with economic power.
A haenyeo is placed into the low rank, the middle rank, and the high rank according to her skills. She can hold her breath for 1-2 minutes and can dive to depths of 5 to 20 meters without any tools and may spend up to 7 hours a day in the sea. She lives as a haenyeo for the entirety of her life, and for as long as she is healthy, she continues to work even into her old age.
Above the high rank is the highest rank of haenyeo, the Daesanggun, who are the leaders of the haenyeo community. This elite group of haenyeo must not only have great seafood harvesting skills, but must also have the ability to predict the weather as accurately as possible. Having lived near the sea for decades, they can predict the weather just by listening to the sound of the waves. There is a saying that a Daesanggun Haenyeo can predict the weather more accurately than the weather forecast.
Since haenyeo are a community made up of people from the same village, they have strong bonds that connect them. High-ranking divers serve as teachers to novice haenyeo who gradually acquire skills by observing their teachers’ work as they live and dialogue with each other. They learn the culture of the haenyeo, as well as the principles of community life. This learning structure is similar to that of the apprenticeship system of the Middle Ages/Era in the West.
A bulteok is a small, circular stone wall built by the coast that serves as the haenyeo’s resting place during work. It provides cover and protection for the haenyeo to change her clothes to enter the sea. It also protects her from strong winds, and she uses it to build fires to rest while warming her body, frozen by the frigid temperatures of the sea.
Haenyeo share the space to cook and roast their catch for snacks while they exchange tips of the trade and important information about bountiful harvesting sites. As they spend time together enclosed in this space, they share their personal stories and talk about the latest gossip, strengthening their bonds to each other.
Bulteok, which used to be prevalent along the coasts of Jeju, have become relics of the past as modern dressing rooms were installed in villages in the 1980s. Each village used to have several bulteok, but today, only about 70 remain.
When you’re picturing a haenyeo, two representative items come to mind: a wetsuit and a tewak.
The work clothes worn by haenyeo in the past were called mulot, or "water clothes”. The top was called muljeoksam, a “water jacket”, the bottom was called mulsojoongi, “water intimates”, and the head garment that they used was called mulsoogeon, a “water towel”.
Modern rubber suits were introduced in the 1970s, which helped to protect the haenyeo’s body and increased work efficiency. Today, all haenyeo utilize rubber wetsuits.
A tewak is sea harvesting equipment that is unique to haenyeo. It is a small buoy that is used as a flotation device to help the haenyeo stay afloat in the sea and also serves as a sort of life jacket. If you see a bright orange buoy floating in the ocean, it means that a haenyeo is at work.
A tewak is made of a buoy and a mesh bag that hangs under it, which is where the haenyeo places her catch. A hook-shaped tool made of steel to remove abalone from rocks is called a bitchang. It has a rope attached to the end of it that is secured onto the haenyeo’s wrist. Tools such as kkakkuri and golgaengi were used to help reach small spaces and flip over rocks.
The difficulty of holding your breath for a long period is not due to a lack of oxygen, but it is because of the buildup of carbon dioxide in your body. When a haenyeo takes a breath after a long dive, the first thing she does is exhale, then she breathes in fresh oxygen at a rapid speed. She makes a noise that sounds like “hoi hoi” as she exits the water, and this sound that is unique to the haenyeo is called sumbisori.
Haenyeo do not catch and harvest seafood indiscriminately. The community decides on working hours, the number of working days, and the minimum sizes of the seafood. Even the tools that are used must first be approved. It is the wisdom of the haenyeo that minimizes damage to the delicate marine ecosystem and preserves a sustainable fishing environment.
Among the seafood that a haenyeo collects, the abalone is the most expensive. Abalone are known to have notoriously strong adhesion to stone, and it is hard at times for even a man to harvest these mollusks.
Haenyeo uses a bitchang to pry the abalone off the rocks, but in certain instances, the bitchang gets stuck and must be abandoned for the haenyeo to come to the surface to breathe. The bitchang is attached to the haenyeo’s wrist by rope, and sometimes the rope gets entangled and cannot come undone, which causes her unfortunate death.
The sharp volcanic rocks are also a danger that can cause severe injury and even death if a haenyeo gets stuck in between them. Poisonous aquatic creatures like jellyfish make diving very risky, and although sharks are rare due to the warm temperatures of Jeju’s seas, they do occasionally appear.
The haenyeo community is a very spiritual one, and altars called “Haesindang” were installed along the seashores to enshrine the sea god. They did not build them as grand and beautiful as Buddhist temples or Catholic cathedrals.
Instead, they designated a rock as the “sacred rock” and a tree as the “sacred tree”, and it was here where they offered simple and humble sacrifices to pray for mercies in safety and abundant harvests.
Some altars that exist today are the Mangaemul Haesindang in Handong-ri, the Saengaenap Donjitdang in Jongdal-ri, the Gaetgeot Halmangdang in Sehwa-ri, and the Dakkeunae Haesindang in Yongdam.
Grandma Kwon Young-hee, age 90, The Oldest Haenyeo in Jongdal-ri
What does “Haenyeo” mean to you?
I was born in Gujwa, Jeju Island, and lived here for 90 years. I learned how to dive at the age of 10, started making money at age 15, and continued to work even until last year. I’ve lived as a Haenyeo for 80 years and retired this year. Even now, I have a lot of desire to catch a conch and dive into the water. The sea is such a good place for me.
Were there any difficulties living as a Haenyeo?
There was nothing difficult about being a Haenyeo. I’ve been diving since I was 10, and my body has grown accustomed to it, so I enjoy doing the work very much. While working as a Haenyeo, there wasn't a single day when I didn't want to go out to sea. You make money by going out to sea. I stayed home on the days when waves were strong, and I couldn’t wait for the weather to get better so I could go back into the sea. Diving helped me to earn a living to raise 6 children, and send them to college, so I am very grateful for the sea. It gets a little hard in the cold winter, but in Jeju, we have what’s called a bulteok, and it's a place where Haenyeo can go to warm themselves in winter. In January, I can't stay in the water for more than 30 minutes because it's too cold. When I was younger, even in the middle of winter, if the weather was good, I would go into the sea.
Do you have any memorable experiences while working as a Haenyeo?
When I was about 25 years old, I went out into the sea for a dive. I heard a sound from the sea and saw a shoal of dolphins passing by. In the Jeju dialect, dolphins are called “gomsik”. Whenever this happens, all the Haenyeo gather together and shout “bae allo” (pass under the boat). Then the dolphins pass under the water and swim away from the Haenyeo. Grandmothers of the past would say it's okay if dolphins come in groups, but to be careful when a lone dolphin approaches. The lone dolphin they were referring to is a shark. Sharks are scary for Haenyeo, but I've never seen a shark in Jeju. I've seen a turtle before, but when I met them in the sea, the turtle and I were both surprised.
If you were given a second life, would you become a Haenyeo again?
People born now cannot become a Haenyeo. Young people don't choose to become a Haenyeo. Everyone goes to the city, and they don’t stay in a village like this to become a Haenyeo. It’s a sad and regretful thing. The youngest Haenyeo in our village is 55 years old. I used to say in the past, “I am Kwon Young-hee, Jongdal-ri’s oldest Haenyeo,” but now that I am retired, I can’t introduce myself like that anymore.
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