SOUTH KOREAN MERMAIDS (HAENYO) FROM JEJU ISLAND
A peculiar, faraway sound may be heard off the coast of Jeju-do (Cheju Island), which is nowhere near the old isle of Capri in the Tyrrhenian Sea, as it echoes off the seashore cliffs of Songsan (Sunrise Peak).
While Odysseus may have heard enticing sounds like this, he quickly blocked his crewmates’ ears with wax since they understood that getting too close to the ship would mean certain death. Unlike Odysseus, you won’t have to lash yourself to the mast to catch a glimpse of the haenyo divers of Jeju, Asia’s version of the Sirens.
Hendrick Hamel, a Dutch sailor, wrecked his yacht, the Sperwer, in 1653 and was imprisoned on Jeju-do for the next 13 years with his crew. The haenyo’s unusual cries convinced these westerners that these women were mermaids of the island, and the haenyo’s strangeness only added to their fascination.
Jeju-do, which is located about 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of South Korea, has an area of about 700 square miles (1,126 square kilometers). These interesting female sea divers can be found in Jeju and the nearby islands.
When the tides are right, the haenyos dive several times a month to bring up their haul of abalone, sea urchins, octopi, seaweed, and shellfish. Their work was and remains vital to supporting their families, especially as men were previously forbidden from diving due to discriminatory taxation policies.
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE ISLAND AND THE MAINLAND
Immediately distinguishable from the mainland are the elevated status of women throughout history on this island. The women divers were the economic drivers of the community.
Women not only provided for their families financially, but also improved their quality of life by funding the construction of homes and the education of their children. Women divers cultivated the sea while men tended to the farm and family.
A female birth signified more wealth for a haenyo family, therefore this may have been the only site in Confucian Asia where it was more common to celebrate the birth of a girl than a boy.
The island’s folklore also includes tales of female deities, giants, and spiritual healers. Jeju is the only island in South Korea that is not governed from the mainland, and this independence is reflected in the island’s provincial administration.
Haenyo women still dive even in Jeju City’s busy center. Their bright blue and white beach house can be seen outside the brand new E-Mart grocery store, just before the ornamented sea wall with a set of stairs leading down to the water.
After a hard day of work, they congregate here. You can’t help but notice the women’s seafaring physiques as they unload their nets, albeit it’s not what you might expect.
They can make anything from $150 to over $200 every day now. Many islanders believe the haenyo have a shorter life expectancy because of their profession. They think that only women can withstand the mental, emotional, and physical strain of scuba diving.
Beyond Mt. Hallasan, which rises to an elevation of 1,950 meters (6,398) on the island’s southern coast, you’ll find a less urbanized region of Jeju. In Seogwipo-si, art depicting divers and their labor is slowly deteriorating over time. Every new generation sees a decline in the number of scuba divers. They’re the last of their kind.
THERE ARE FEWER WITH EVERY GENERATION
More than 30,000 remained during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. There are now less than 6,000 of them left, and of those, half are 60 or older. Furthermore, only daughters of divers are legally allowed to carry on the demanding profession.
Men are socially discouraged from trying diving. In today’s prosperous world, however, these heiress women are looking for new paths in life.
One young woman, whose mother is a diver, stated, “I’d rather do something easier, based on my education.” We realize how taxing this is for them. There are a variety of options open to us. Divers in their seventies and beyond have come to terms with the fact that they are, essentially, the last of their type.