Jeju Island has real-life mermaids.
They do not look like what you might expect. Instead of smooth porcelain skin, their faces are mapped with wrinkles. In place of long, flowing hair, they flaunt ear-length perms. Their backs bend permanently at the waist. Most are missing teeth.
But underwater they move gently in their wetsuits and weight belts, swinging upside-down from the strands of bull kelp. Their garden-gloved hands slide along the ocean floor, easing octopi from invisible clefts. They spiral back up toward the underside of the sea, hands full, breaking the surface with a sharp whistle as the waves sway their orange buoys.
They live with pasts I can’t imagine. They dive even on the coldest, windiest days. They elbow past me on the bus, and find each other hilarious.
These mermaids are the haenyeo, the women divers of Jeju Island, South Korea.
Last Saturday, I had my first class to become certified as a haenyeo. For every Saturday for the rest of the summer, I will drive my scooter along the coast to the Hansupul Haenyeo School, where I get the chance to learn first-hand about the lives of these women.
The classes are long. They take up a solid chunk of my weekends, and exclude any weekend trips (so long, mud festival). And they’re all in Korean.
So, why is mermaid class worth the commitment?
1. Women Who Rock an Ocean Profession
In every country I’ve visited, when I look as the people who make a living from the ocean, I see vastly more men than women. In the Philippines, I didn’t see a single woman manning the outrigger canoes (It’s telling that it took me a second reading to notice the word “manning.”). In India and Ghana, the men pulled in the nets. In Mexico, the figures behind the fishing poles were usually men.
Even in California, where I worked as an ocean lifeguard for six summers, there were six men for every woman in the tower.
Working as a woman in a male-dominated ocean profession, I developed a deep respect for the women who chose to defy the odds. Sunset Beach, where I worked as a lifeguard, boasted some of the most badass women I know: of the four of us who worked the towers, two now travel internationally as athletes, and one is utterly fearless in big surf and has also rescued a deer. And that’s just in one profession. The women I’ve known in marine science and eco-tourism continue to inspire me with their rock-hard strength even while being part of an overwhelming minority. (If you’re reading this as a woman in an ocean profession, you are a serious badass. And I mean that.)
Jeju Island is the only place I’ve been where women don’t just participate in ocean professions, they dominate them. And those women aren’t just the young, the fit, and the strong: they are the grandmothers, with sunspots, and saggy wetsuits, and gap-toothed smiles.
2. An Honest-to-Goodness Matriarchal Culture
Since recorded history, the haenyeo of Jeju have gone to the ocean to feed their families. This often made them the primary breadwinners of their families. This status gave them a special level of power within the home, within the villages, and within the wider island community.
When it becomes normalized for women to hold this level of power, the culture will necessarily shift. This is exactly what has happened on Jeju. The head haenyeo of a village hold a special place in village politics. The jeju shamanistic religion is heavily geared toward women, with only women being able to hold the role of shaman.
In the older women, you can see this surety. They walk as if they own the world, up to and including the bus seat behind you. They are fearless, with the confidence of someone who has been too busy with life to have time to be held down by their gender, in a culture that knows and needs their own special strength.
The haenyeo know the marine life around their village shores better than most. They have been farming these waters for generations, and have had plenty of time to observe what hurts and what helps the local marine populations.
Part of becoming a haenyeo is learning the strict rules for when you can and can’t collect certain species. This can take the form of specific gathering seasons, seasonal catch limits, or even the act of seeding certain areas with threatened species.
When an individual collects from the sea, they run the risk of taking more than is healthy for the environment. When the government regulates fisheries, they run the risk of making legislation that does not fit all the areas it contains. But when a multi-generational community regulates its own consumption, then they have a direct incentive to ensure the continued health of their ecosystem, alongside the knowledge specific to that ecosystem.
The haenyeo form just such a community.
4. All the Pretty Fishes
Let’s just say that I am a complete nerd for marine science. If you ever have an hour to spare, strike up a conversation with me about nudibranchs.
Now I just want to talk about nudibranchs instead of haenyeo.
When I went to a meeting with the haenyeo following a screening of SeaWomen, one woman said something that struck my curiosity. “When we see the dolphins, we are afraid,” she said. “Not because of the dolphins, but because of the large fish that follow them.”
I have no idea what those large fish would be — tuna or sharks, or something else entirely. But I want to know. I want to know where to find the sea squirts that look like hearts, and whether blue-ringed octopi really do hide under Jeju’s rocks.
And I want to see nudibranchs. Many, many nudibranchs.
5. Transferable Skills
Last Sunday, I lay outside my tent with the people I love best on the island, the trees above us shifting in a light breeze, discussing which of us we would eat first if stranded on a desert island.
“Give me a few weeks,” I pointed out, “and we won’t have to eat anyone. I’ll just catch us something.”
Becoming a haenyeo means that, if I ever do end up in the future on a desert island, I won’t have to kill and eat the people I love.
That’s a relief.
6. The International Eye
It makes sense why the international community would be interested in the haenyeo. They hit the jackpot on points for a good story: empowered women, the elderly, sustainable fishing, and the photogenic combination of wrinkled smiles, black rocks, orange buoys, and blue water.
In recent months, international media outlets have begun to take notice of this fact. The New York Times ran an article about the haenyeo, and several other international media groups, including the BBC, have also expressed interest in the haenyeo.
They follow international artists such as UK-based filmmaker Mikhail Karakis, whose art installation entitled “SeaWomen” brought the haenyeo to an international audience. I had the opportunity to review “SeaWomen” for the Jeju Weekly, and then returned a week later to write about the response of several haenyeo to his work.
But the haenyeo are known even closer to home. Whilst gardening in her front yard one morning, my Mom randomly met one of my childhood heros, the long-distance swimmer and writer Lynne Cox. At the mention of my being in Jeju she told my mom she had heard about the haenyeo, and had even considered taking the course.
I would not be surprised to find the haenyeo becoming a trending topic in international media. This is a good time to be carrying around an orange buoy.
7. Directness of History
Jeju has a fascinating history. There’s a waterfall in the south where signs claim you can read ancient Chinese characters. Two weeks ago I climbed inside the bunker on an abandoned Japanese airfield. To get to haenyeo school, I drive past a fort where the islanders fought off the Mongols.
Starting in 1948, the island saw the massacre of 30,000 villagers under the orders of the transitional US government and the newborn Korean government. Many of the women diving along the coast today would have been alive during that period.
The haenyeo have played an integral part in the history of this island, from their special resistance to the Japanese occupation (a resistance which I’ve frequently heard spoken of, but need to research further), to their roles as the leaders of persecuted villages in the days of the Jeju Massacre. And, because of the age of some of today’s haenyeo, they carry those stories ready-made within their memory.
What better place to learn history than from the mouths of those that lived it.
8. Looking Beyond the Pastoral
Though being a haenyeo was once considered a lowly career, in recent years they have become one of the main tourist trademarks of Jeju island, as prolific as the hallabong oranges, volcanic black pigs, and stone grandfathers.
There’s a tension here, though, that is easy to see. On the one hand, there are the haenyeo of the statues and the tourism brochures, which feature trim waists and wide, bubbly eyes. There are haenyeo statues on street corners, haenyeo masks on carved pigs or keychain stone grandfathers, and haenyeo demonstrations scheduled just after the dolphin shows at the aquarium.
On the other hand, there are the real-life haenyeo, with their gap-toothed smiles and eyes that are watery from a lifetime of staring over the sea. Their wetsuits sag at the chest, and their backs are doubled over from hauling countless catches.
I have no doubt that these real women live lives that are vastly different from the tourism brochures, lives which are much more gritty and much more real. And it’s those real, honest women that I hope to know.
9. A Dying Tradition
Well, I thought seriously, the other day. If all else fails in my life, I can always come back to Jeju and make a living selling whelks.
That plan lasted for exactly half a second. Why on earth would I do that, I laughed at myself, when I could get a job teaching just as easily and with a far more stable salary.
This exchange is a microcosm of what had been happening in Jeju villages over the last several decades.
I mentioned that most of the haenyeo are elderly, and here is why: the young people simply are not interested in making a living from the cold sea when there are so many other opportunities available to them.
Korea is a first-world country with a third-world older generation. The women carrying their catches up from the sea grew up in an environment where survival was paramount. For their children and grandchildren, success is paramount. These two cultures exist at odds.
The haenyeo are a well-loved tradition, but they are a tradition that is expiring. Most of the haenyeo are between 60 and 80 years old, and some are as old as 90. The youngest haenyeo I’ve met so far was 48.
Ours will probably be the last generation to see the orange buoys of the haenyeo as they go about their work in the sea.
There is a tendency to try to immortalize traditional practices by strongly encouraging people to continue in that way of life. But the fact is, being a haenyeo is hard work. I will not choose it as a permanent way of life. Who am I to expect others to do the same?
The fact is that traditions are sometimes lost in the evolution of society. This does not have to be a sad thing. The opportunities available to the younger generation are really amazing, and offer a far better path for the future. If this generation chooses technology over tradition, then that is their own choice. And that choice will shape their society in new and exciting ways, just as the haenyeo shaped their own past societies.
We do not have to mourn the haenyeo. What we should do is to learn from them.
The haenyeo offer a perspective on culture that is like nothing else on the globe. They hold generations of knowledge about how to live beside their local ecosystem. They give a whole new voice to what it can mean to be a woman, to be elderly, to be strong. Their songs speak to the future as well as to the past, and their stories have the power to challenge our ideas of what life on Jeju can look like.
These stories should not be lost.
This is why I made the decision to join the haenyeo class: because I want to learn. I want to sit beside a culture that is so beautifully unique, and give that culture the honor and the memory it deserves. I don’t want the haenyeo to fade away, memorialized only by bobble-head keychains. Instead I want to navigate the real, strong currents of these women’s real, strong lives. To immortalize those lives in language, if not in green nets. To make sure that the haenyeo and the wisdom they have to offer are never, ever forgotten.
That’s why we were all there on Saturday, foreigner and Korean, Jeju person and travellers from the mainland. That’s why a handful of students will fly from Seoul every weekend to make the class. That’s why one woman in my group moved from a smaller island to the city to cut down on the commute to Hallim. That’s why I’m missing drinking in a giant swamp pit at the mud festival in July.
We are becoming mermaids, so the real mermaids will live on.
Have your own stories about the haenyeo? Are you a badass ocean woman yourself? Comment below!