Cast off the southern tip of South Korea, Jeju Island rises from the Pacific’s emerald waters in a medley of colours. White-sand beaches and black jagged rocks ring much of the coast, basalt craters pocket the volcanic isle’s interior and in the small town of Pyeongdae-ri, an orange-roofed restaurant called Pyeongdae Sunggae Guksu sits by the beach. Step inside and the first thing you’ll notice is a series of photographs tacked to the wall of female divers emerging from the water.
The divers are a community of women known throughout the country as haenyeo (literally: “sea women”), and they are often likened to mermaids for their ability to plunge more than 10m into the sea without using oxygen masks to gather shellfish, abalone and other creatures. Haenyeo call what they do mujil, (“water work”), and spend up to seven hours a day, 90 days a year prying molluscs and other sea life from the rocky ocean floor barehanded or with a sharp fishing spear. Before a dive, the women hold hands in prayer and ask Jamsugut – the goddess of the sea – for safety and abundance. And after spending several minutes underwater, they emerge and send a fluted whistle across the waves to communicate with their fellow divers.
Jeju’s unique tradition of female divers dates back to at least the 17th Century. The rocky island’s scarcity of farmable land; poor, volcanic soil and harsh winds have led islanders to farm the sea instead. The arduous work of haenyeo became especially necessary when Korea was under Japanese rule between 1910 and 1945, and again during the extremities of the Korean War in the early 1950s, when more and more women had to take up work to contribute to their households.