The sun has barely surfaced over the dozy coastal village of Pyeongdae on Jeju, a small volcanic island in South Korea. By a line of low, painted buildings on the north-east shore, two dozen women are preparing to enter the steely grey sea. Some, already in wetsuits, are scraping the ground to sharpen their bitchang, hooks that they will use to prise abalone, a type of mollusc, from their rocky underwater dwellings. Others are snapping masks daubed with mugwort to their foreheads. The plant leaves a film on the lens to help prevent fogging. A rumble of quad bikes arrives and three more samchoon, or “uncles”, as islanders call elderly women, dismount.
Like most of the 120 haenyeo – sea women – in this village’s fishery, they are grandmothers. They dive without tanks, descending through the water by means of leaden weights tied around their waists. Many say a haenyeo’s diving career does not peak until after 60 – it takes years to build up the endurance and skills to find the best hunting grounds on the sea floor. The hardiest stay under for up to two minutes and reach depths of ten metres, where the most valuable sea creatures lurk: rockfish, red cockscomb algae, sea cucumbers and octopus. Each haenyeo carries a special pouch in case she spots a pearly abalone to prise from the rocks: diners in Seoul’s ritzy Apgujeong district will pay more than 50,000 won (nearly $50) for a mouthful of its delicate, buttery taste.
Today’s expedition, in which each diver will harvest a kilo or more of sea urchins, will last about five hours. The water is ice-cold and the descent painful; though many women have never learnt to relieve pressure in their ears, some stuff gum into them and cover them with duct tape. A few have gone deaf. Empty phials of painkillers glisten in the craggy, volcanic rocks, among the violet husks of sea urchins.
A sleek 4x4 rolls up. Diver hops out – daughter drives on. Half of the island’s 4,000 active haenyeo are now over 70. Most started learning the trade from their mothers as soon as they could swim. But since the 1980s many of their children have left the island in search of another frothy wave: economic growth in the mainland’s booming cities.
Kang Kyung-ok is one of those who left. Her father died young and at the age of seven she started fulfilling the role of a haenyeo’s husband, picking out the best seaweed from the catch and smashing open sea urchins to reveal their valuable, quivering orange entrails. She left for university, got married and settled in Busan, the country’s second-biggest city. When she started struggling financially, she returned to her childhood post by the shore to work in the office of her mother’s fishery. Then she began to dive. Now 40, she is one of the top-tier haenyeo at Pyeongdae. Money is not the draw – even as one of the elite she makes only 12m won (just over $10,000) from the sea in a good year (she sells organic carrots, potatoes and radishes to supplement her income). “The sea is a place that is just mine. It’s stress-free,” says Kang. She never thought she would do “waterwork”, known as muljil, but “now I see myself doing this into my 80s too.”
Until the 17th century, diving was a male profession. Some say women became involved because deep-sea fishing took men out to sea for days on end – many never returned – so women had to become breadwinners. Others reckon they took advantage of a loophole in a patriarchal legal code that taxed only fish caught by men, on the assumption that women did not work. The number of female divers reached a high point of 23,000 in 1965.
The trade has modernised since, but just a little. Fifty years ago haenyeo dived in cotton shorts with hollowed-out calabash fruit for floats; now they wear wetsuits and carry bright orange buoys. Waterside husbands are no longer necessary: a pulley on the slipway at Pyeongdae was recently installed to winch up the heaviest nets. The changes reflect the growing recognition of the art. For centuries this was the trade of forgotten, impoverished women. Now there is a newfound recognition of their talents. In 2016 the culture of the Jeju divers was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and last year it was listed on South Korea’s own national registry of treasures.
Even so, waterwork is not generally an attractive proposition for most aspirational Koreans. Feasting on seafood, not catching it, is their measure of success; newlyweds travel to Jeju for their beachside honeymoons in wedding outfits rather than wetsuits. The work has long carried a stigma in South Korea’s education-obsessed society and female divers are assumed to be uneducated. “When I was young, I would throw down my school bag and go out to harvest seaweed. Diving was the only way to survive,” says Kang Myeong-sun, the 66-year-old head haenyeo of the Saekdal fishery on the southern coast. Like most others at the time, Kang was diving until five days before she gave birth.
The trade is now attracting a small but swelling current of youngsters escaping urban malaise. In 2016 some 500,000 South Koreans moved from cities to rural areas: half of them were under 40. A dribble of those migrants found their way to the island of Jeju and the diving business. The Hansupul school, which opened in 2008 with pleasure courses for tourists, began its first professional course last year, and placed 15 male and female students in internships at fisheries across the island.
Kim Eun-joo, another new diver, was born in Seoul. She moved to Jeju after she was laid off from a securities firm during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Now, the thought of going back to the city gives her “a tightness in the chest”. Already an amateur freediver, a form of underwater diving that relies on the ability to hold one’s breath, she took weekend classes at both haenyeo schools, joining an eight-woman haenyeo co-operative at Gongchunpo in the south. They are already looking to the future. The samchoon suggested that Kim’s husband join the tiny fishery as a “seaman”, or haenam, so that she would have company in the water when the older generation she now fishes with dies. He is one of just nine seamen on the island.
Strong kinship is part of the lure. Kang of Pyeongdae recalls that when her early catches were meagre, experienced divers would put some of their shells into her net. Yet some native haenyeo reckon the young city-dwellers treat the job as a faddish diversion. At many of the island’s fisheries, new entrants must pay a joining fee of between 1m and 3m won – almost a third require more than three years’ residency in their village – but some “land people” train for almost a decade without being voted in as members. Kim and her husband have made an effort to bind themselves to the community. They hold seaside flea markets to raise funds for elderly haenyeo. Locals come to eat barbecued conch shells and get haircuts on the beach. Yet she still struggles with the thick Jeju dialect and admits that she often feels like an outsider.
Despite the entrenched lifestyles, haenyeo culture has contemporary appeal. In recent years debate has intensified about the role of women in male-dominated South Korea. Feminist outfits now promote the haenyeo as the country’s first working mothers, who put their children through school and whose fisheries often used their profits to pave roads and equip local amenities. In some families traditional roles were reversed. Kang of Saekdal says her husband brushed her children’s hair, sent them to school and “did everything around the house – he even made the kimchi” (it is a housewifely duty to manufacture this fermented-cabbage staple).
They are witness to environmental as well as lifestyle changes. Certain species of seaweed have disappeared because of pollution and run-off from construction sites. Salt levels have fallen. Largehead hairtail, a type of cutlassfish once found only in the Jeju sea, has become abundant elsewhere as sea temperatures have risen.
Most divers cling to inherited practices. Oxygen tanks have been available for decades but the haenyeo continue to use primitive equipment that can help avoid over-fishing. Fisheries set their own regulations, agreeing on fallow seasons and minimum sizes for abalone: since the water distorts the size of shells on the seafloor, divers have marked the permitted length on their bitchang. At Saekdal, monthly diving cycles allow women to work for seven consecutive days and then impose an eight-day break. Former office workers, who might once have snatched a rare weekend to lounge on Jeju’s beaches and swim its waters, now work to the rhythms of the sea. As their urban peers reach retirement age in the years to come, they will just be reaching their prime.
Additional reporting by Yuna Chang