Meet the next generation of South Korean seawomen

Meet the next generation of South Korean seawomen
The path is rocky for South Korea’s fresh haenyeo recruits. Luckily the new female freedivers on Geoje Island are following in the footsteps of warmhearted veterans.

Six hours after disappearing out to sea, seven haenyeo return to the harbor in Gujora-ri, a remote coastal town on South Korea's second largest island. Huge nets are filled to the brim with oysters, conches, sea cucumbers and abalone. As soon as they are loaded, the female freedivers work with military pace and precision in pink and yellow kitchen gloves.

“Take this,” Yoon Mo-gum says and hands the new recruit, Shin Ho-jin, two large abalone. “But you caught them?” Shin asks, looking surprised. “It’s OK,” the 63-year-old replies, pushing the two molluscs over to her. Everything they catch determines their salary. The most valuable and sought-after is the abalone.

Such are the ways of the haenyeo; female freedivers that for centuries have been known as South Korea’s remarkable clan of seawomen. The first time Shin read about them, she was spellbound. 70 and 80-year old women freediving? Why had she not heard about them before? Pent up at her desk in a gaming company in central Seoul, the 34-year-old was drawn to the divers’ descriptions of how they understood the rhythms at sea. How they had worked together to protect the ocean. And how, despite being well over retirement-age, they still went out diving.

But most of all, Shin was attracted to the sense of community. In the office, she felt like a machine. “They told me: ‘Make money, make money, we don’t want to hear about your children, you just have to work!’”, she recalls. Not knowing anything about freediving, she thought: “This is what I’ll do”.

I met Shin last October. In a coffee shop she turned up in a cobalt blue down vest and looked nothing like she had just been diving for six hours straight. The first haenyeo came from Jeju, South Korea's largest island, Shin told me. Several were trained already at the age of 10 and dived through adolescence and young adulthood, expectant mothers dived during pregnancies and older women into their mature years.

On Jeju there were over 26,000 haenyeo in 1960. Due to the dangerous nature of freediving, however, many wanted their descendants to have a different life – sending them off to university rather than to sea. The numbers dwindled, and in 2014 Yang Hi-bum, a Jeju government official, said that “most of the haenyeo will be gone in 20 years unless we have new recruits”. Two years later, when UNESCO inscribed the female freedivers as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, they were suddenly on everyone’s lips – not only in South Korea, but all over the world. Academies to train future recruits started popping up, both on Jeju and Geoje.

The question was - could the younger women endure the heavy life of a full-time freediver?

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No doubt Shin had a lot to prove when she graduated from Geoje Haenyeo Academy in 2018. For a year she had practiced how to slide downwards on a single breath, and how to read the ocean, the tides and currents. It was tough at first, she admitted. The older freedivers were hesitant of someone from the city.

A few months later, however, 69-year-old Lee Bok-soon called – and that’s when everything changed. Lee has been the captain of the boat that Shin would come to work for more than 50 years. Every morning the seven women that formed the crew met in Lee’s living room before heading out to sea. When I met her, Lee, often referred to as Omma (Korean for mother), was sitting in the middle of a black leather sofa with her wetsuit pants on. She was the smallest woman in the room, but her stature only added to her entrancing presence.

The 69-year-old admitted that when she first started to recruit new divers, she was skeptical. Hunting in the deep is a tough and dangerous job – with no room for error. “The fishing nets move back and forth and can trap you quickly if you don’t pay attention”, she said, confessing that she had sworn to keep the three recruits on her boat safe.

Originally from Jeju, Lee moved to Geoje as a child. At that time, daughters were supposed to work. They had no choice but to do this, she explained. “It was hard to even go back inside. Our mothers kept saying: No, go out, get back in the water”.

During the Japanese occupation many haenyeo emerged as independent economic agents. As a result, a lot of women continued diving despite health challenges or during pregnancy. As did several of the women in Bok-soon’s living room – Kim Sun-ja, 65-years-old, even gave birth while she was at sea. During spring she was picking seaweed close to the shore. Suddenly her water broke, and she had no time to call somebody for help.

“I just climbed up the seashore and gave birth to my daughter. When the others realised that I was missing, they found me and helped me back home with my baby safely. It was quite normal to give birth on the seashore”, she told me as her three youngest recruits looked thoroughly surprised. They would never be that calm, they proclaimed. The older haenyeo believed they had healthy babies because they were working in the sea while being pregnant.

They all knew how hard it is taking time off – no diving means no pay. Last September, because of a typhoon, they were barely diving for almost a month. Warming seas have made the weather more unpredictable and harder to find marine life. Only thirty years ago, their livelihood was not nearly as impacted. The older freedivers often reminisced back to when the sea was full of life, sharing stories of enormous catches and buoys that almost sank due to the weight of countless shells.

Now, some days their nets are only half-full. To gather as much as possible, they all have their own secret tips and tricks, sometimes holding on to shells under their chin, arms and between their legs. “You should see them! They have shells everywhere,” Shin said and laughed. “They’re like machines!” The women around her visibly agreed: “Yes, yes, we are!”

The room filled with laughter, yet again. “We are like family”, Lee confirmed while pointing at two bags of crisps lying on the kitchen table: “Ho-jin, bring those to your children!”, she said. One time, when they found a giant pink floating device that was lost at sea, Lee strapped it onto her taewak, saying it would be a perfect gift for Shin’s children – and then climbed onboard. She then called over to the others and said; Hey, let’s not work today! Let’s just lie here and enjoy the sun!

Shin still laughed when thinking about it. Initially her two kids were skeptical of moving out of Seoul, leaving friends, family and everything they knew behind. But the two kids seemed everything but unhappy about their current life. “Everyone at my school thinks mom is very cool,” her 11-year old daughter, Jung Woo-huyn, said. “My friends too!” her son Jung So-yoon said eagerly. “Oh, I didn’t know that,” Shin replied, smiling to herself.

One thing was certain; the ties of affection, interdependence and respect had drawn the female freedivers together, forming a basis for cooperation. Their key to survival at sea was constantly keeping watch and looking out for each other. And the bonus? There were no iPhones down there, no sounds of shrieking subway trains – and no emails piling up.

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