WHAT IS THEIR PHILOSOPHY OF LIfE
"Living in a group while finding a harmony with the nature is the only way to survive"
Haenyeo literaly means sea women in Korean language. They relay entirely on their diver's ability to hold breath and submerge to the bottom of the ocean shelf. Haenyeo spend their entire life diving. Furthermore, they are famous for free spirit, strength of mind and long lasting live. Haenyeo culture is inscribed by UNESCO on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
WHERE HAENYEO LIVE
Haenyeo inhabit the beautiful Jeju island, Korea and are at the center of the semi-matriarchal family structure.
HOW HAENYEO ARE BORN
Korean society is very male dominated, influenced strongly by the philosophy of the Confucius. In general women obey men. However, in the 17th century due to a war, many men lost their life. Desperate times, desperate measures! In order to save the survived people, women had to take care of the elders, kids and weak. All this required a major shift in the organization of their society. The land on Jeju island was with limited fertility. Furthermore, the little farms built there were devastated by the enimies. All this forced women outside of their comfort zone and they searched for food in the waters around the island.
There were some men who tried to dive as well. Unfortunately, due to much lower subcutaneous fat and shivering threshold compared to women they gradually gave up. Only women were able to withstand cold waters.
On the tiny islets Mara, just a stone throw away of Jeju, sea-diving was the only source of income. This gave full power to the women. In the same time, men had to look after the children and cook while the women would bring in money for the family. Other example of Jeju’s unique society includes men paying a dowry to the family.
Traditionally, haenyeo start their training when in age of 10~11 for a period of 7 years. Based on the experience they are classified as hagun, junggun and sanggun. Haenyeo learn how to hold their breath for over 3+ minutes while freediving up to 30m to the bottom of the ocean in search of octopus, sea urchins, sea squirt, abalone, conch, brown alga, top shell, oysters. Major tools used by haenyeo are goggles, gloves, weights, an L-shaped weeding hoe, and a net, where they collect the catch. Originally they were diving in white cotton swimsuits to protect them from the sharks.
It is impressive how even in the middle of the winter haenyeo were able to stay in the ice cold water for about 1 hour before taking a break of 3~4 hours. During the summer, they could spend 3~4 hours at a time before taking a break. In the middle of the 20th century haenyeo adopted the usage of wet swimsuit which let them stay in cold water for 5~6 hours at a time. Oftentimes Haenyeo don't eat until the work for the day is done.
Тhe central role of the haenyeo start to diminish in the ‘60s when the sea-diving industry has fallen victim to industrialization. Korean government wanted to boost the local economy and pushed majority of the islanders to develop oranges as export product as well as tourism. Consequently their number drops significantly from 14000 in the '70s to 4000 in the 2015. Today, 98% of the haenyeo are in age above 50. And there are only few young women willing to follow the path of their ancestors and deep dive into the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean.