Bittersweet Catch: Korea’s Diving Women and the Pitfalls of Cultural Preservation

A haenyeo, floating in the water, holds up her catch. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

As one looks beyond the basalt-encrusted coastline of Jeju, a volcanic island located at the foot of the Korean peninsula, one notices curious orange balls bobbing among the waves, numbering perhaps ten or twenty. A seal-like head, covered in black rubber, pops out from the sea, making a whistling sound that can be heard faintly even at a distance. Suddenly, the figure ducks into the water once again, kicking up her finned feet at a 90-degree angle, and revealing herself to be human. This figure is a haenyeo (literally, “sea woman”), one of the sea divers of Jeju Island, and the orange balls are flotation devices attached to the nets containing her catch.

While the haenyeo have a long history going back to at least the seventeenth century, they kept a relatively low profile until recent decades. As in many other societies, women with means traditionally did not work for a living, which meant that Korean women’s labor was not valued highly. Moreover, before the availability of wetsuits in the 1970s, haenyeo dived wearing scanty cotton clothing, something that also did not earn them respect within conservative Korean society. Most importantly, the physically demanding and dangerous nature of the work meant becoming a haenyeo was rarely a choice. As such, their skills were often exploited throughout history—either by the governing sovereign or enterprising Japanese colonizers.

A haenyeo diver coming up for air. Photo by Brian Miller, June 2009.

A haenyeo diver coming up for air. Photo by Brian Miller, June 2009.

All of that is changing. The haenyeo are now frequently recognized as a valuable part of Korea’s cultural heritage, and they are gaining visibility through TV series, movies, documentaries, and exhibitions. Their presence has also been amplified by Jeju’s explosion as a tourist destination in the twenty-first century. In academia, they have been reimagined as Korea’s pioneer feminists, whose independent income allowed them to have a voice in the predominantly patriarchal family structure. Their community-based, strictly hierarchical social structure—essential for ensuring safety in the dangerous profession—have been linked to a model of democratic community governance and sustainable ecology. Even the physical and historical hardships have been refitted to dovetail with a nationalistic discourse that connects strong, working female figures with the building of the nation; in a country that industrialized within just a few decades, the narrative of haenyeo as not simply women but mothers of the country served as an especially powerful metaphor. At the same time, their endangered status corroborates Jeju’s mystique as an island of natural beauty, innocence, and exoticism—a nostalgic getaway from Korea’s dynamic mainland mentality.

The latest public recognition came in 2016, when haenyeo were inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) after years of effort from the government. While there has been some criticism regarding UNESCO designations, ICH purports to safeguard cultural knowledge and pass it on to the next generation. However, this commitment brings to light some implementation challenges. At the time of application in 2014, 84 percent of divers were over 60 years old, making it clear that haenyeo would go extinct within a couple decades—barring unlikely scenarios such as the sudden popularity of the occupation or its increased profitability. Realizing this, the provincial government has been providing support in various ways, one of which is backing a small local institution called Haenyeo School, which seeks to educate the next generation of haenyeo.

A sculture of a haenyeo diver. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A sculpture of a haenyeo diver. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

My own interest in the haenyeo began when I learned that my husband’s maternal grandmother had been one. He described to me an early childhood memory of sitting on a beach and waiting for her to emerge for air, almost on the verge of tears because she was taking too long. But just when he was sure he never would see her again, she would miraculously rise from the sea, holding an abalone in her hand. Later, she would flash a triumphant smile as she pushed the raw shellfish, peeled straight from the shell, into her grandson’s mouth.

A haenyeo prepares for her dive. Photo by Brian Miller, January 2007.

A haenyeo prepares for her dive. Photo by Brian Miller, January 2007.

This story seemed remarkable to me for a few reasons. First is the mention of abalone, the most prized of all marine life. Because I hear so frequently today about the dearth of natural abalone, this story evokes a more abundant time. Second is the indelible impression left on the little boy by his grandmother’s breath-holding technique—a physical feat ending with a dramatic total exhalation, which sounds like a whistle. (His concern was well founded. The job is so dangerous that numerous lives are lost each year.) Third, it seemed to fit the quintessential image of a haenyeo perfectly: a strong mother figure who finds nothing more satisfying than feeding her offspring by the sweat of her brow. Connecting the natural, cultural, and human elements, this anecdote illuminated for me why the story of haenyeo exercises such a hold on the Korean imagination.

She passed too soon, regrettably, not leaving me a chance to learn about her life. But the story sparked in me a continuing interest in haenyeo, and that is probably why, shortly after her death in 2011, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the fledgling Haenyeo School in order to produce a series of weekly reports for an English-language radio station. Over the next two months, I was at the school every week, learning from the haenyeo how to dive their way.

The majority of students were local men and women from Jeju who counted many haenyeo among their relatives but had never learned to dive themselves. But there were also some mainlanders, from those who had moved to the island to seek a different lifestyle to those just beginning to explore that possibility. There were other, less traditional participants, like a woman who was traveling the island for a year with a handmade trailer and her miniature horse, and a Fulbright scholar studying marine biology. Then there was me, sort of an amateur ethnographer.

Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. Ambassador to Korea (second row, second from right), with Haenyeo School students, embassy staff, and the author (bottom right).

Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. Ambassador to Korea (second row, second from right), with Haenyeo School students, embassy staff, and the author (bottom right).

The curriculum was somewhat loose and haphazard. The divers often could not articulate their methods, since they were never formally trained and learned only through decades of experience, often beginning in childhood. In a way, it was presumptuous of us to suppose such deeply embodied knowledge could be learned in just a few weeks. “What can I say? You just do it,” they would tell me sometimes. Since that is probably how they learned, I could not argue with them.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the summer. I met some great people, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse of an occupation that had previously been so mysterious to me. But I was bothered by the shaky logic behind the school’s objective. Sure, it was refreshing to be wading in the water in summertime, but I would then remember that the women dive year-round. The school’s claim to be raising the next crop of haenyeo seemed naive. Why was I—with no intention of becoming a real diver—even there? How about other mainlanders, for whom the school was merely a weekly excursion to the island?

Even if the students could somehow master the necessary skills—already unlikely—the work of haenyeo is so deeply enmeshed in community life that it is impossible to become a haenyeo without first living as one. All haenyeo belong to village cooperatives that require hefty membership fees and other community duties. They collectively decide on everything regarding marine activity in the village—from what to catch when to how to clean the sea floor. In other words, the certificates of completion given at the end of the program did not entitle students to anything unless they were prepared to transplant and cultivate their lives and identities in the community. It meant that most students were treating the course not as an education, but rather as a cultural experience.

The desire to preserve haenyeo has more to do with longing for the past than planning for the future.

More importantly, the practice is becoming less viable as an occupation. Some think that the barrier to becoming a haenyeo is set intentionally high so that the existing divers do not have to share diminishing resources. Every haenyeo I met remembered a time when she could expect a healthy compensation for her labor. Such is not the case with warming waters, declining catch, and the competition from farmed seafood, modern fishing practices, and cheap imports. Combine that with the labor-intensive, life-threatening nature of the job, and it is no surprise that it is almost impossible to get new recruits. From what they told me, it would seem that the haenyeo would not be in danger of extinction if the practice was still lucrative. There is already a substantial premium put on natural seafood caught by haenyeo, but the catch continues to decline. For example, in case of abalone, the most prized marine creature among Koreans, those hand-caught by haenyeo command significantly higher prices than the farmed variety. The abalone grows exponentially in price as they age (which can be told by their size and the rings on their shells), and farmed abalone is almost never grown beyond a certain size. With large natural abalone becoming so rare, catching one is akin to getting a blank check—or at least a few days’ worth of diving income. Often, these prizes do not even reach the market, as they are saved or sold to close friends or family.

Abalone and octopus caught off the coast of Jeju, Korea. Photo from Max Pixel.

Abalone and octopus caught off the coast of Jeju, Korea. Photo from Max Pixel.

The declining catch is not limited to abalone. Villages now regularly farm conchs and flounder and release them into the sea, hoping to catch them later at a bigger size and get a higher price for being semi-natural. At the school, we hurled buckets of market-bought conchs into the ocean to give us something to dive after.

In the age of oxygenated diving and efficient modern fishing and farming practices, why have so many rallied behind the cause of preserving this particular practice? I tried to turn to the divers for an answer, but it became clear that they themselves were ambivalent. If nothing else, these women did seem to feel that the recent movement to acknowledge their work as heritage was a nice gesture, especially since they had spent much of their lives without such appreciation. To their credit, some of them also displayed some pride, even enjoyment, in their work. “It can be fun when you are successful, like solving a puzzle,” one told me when I asked why she continues to do it when she does not have to. But when I asked about the future of their work, it seemed that there was no doubt in their minds that theirs was a craft that will not survive.

The very concept of haenyeo diving as a craft or heritage was somewhat alien to them. When local proverbs spoke of a cow’s life being better than a woman’s, when they had to dive in the dead of winter or while pregnant or right after giving birth, when they had to rely on painkillers to numb the headache resulting from unpressurized diving, when their ears and lungs were permanently damaged, when they had witnessed the loss of many peers, diving was always a matter of life and death, survival or starvation. What did they make of us in our scuba wetsuits, chasing after farmed conchs? There was something ironic and uneasy about the fact that these women were teaching complete strangers about the craft that they had resisted passing on to their own daughters.

Haenyeo divers have become a tourist attraction on the island of Jeju. Photo by Walter Lim, June 2012.

Haenyeo divers have become a tourist attraction on the island of Jeju. Photo by Walter Lim, June 2012.

I dared not pursue that question in so many words. I was afraid of what I would hear. My husband’s grandmother suffered from near deafness and chronic headache before her death, but the memory of her as a haenyeo was clearly a cherished one, albeit imbued with sadness. Would it offer her some solace to see her lifework elevated, honored, and remembered today? Would it make all the pain worthwhile? Or had she somehow found reason, pride, and joy in her work on her own?

My experience at Haenyeo School ultimately failed to answer any questions about the preservation of a cultural practice in the face of cultural, environmental, and economic challenges. I came away with the feeling that perhaps it is time to face the matter frankly and examine the real meaning of this legacy. Is it in their technique, their interaction with the environment, or their historical or social significance? Should it be preserved at all? What would a serious conversation look like, and would Koreans come up with more plausible answers if they acknowledged more openly the irreversible impacts of climate change and corresponding changes to the cultural landscape?

A haenyeo diver removes an octopus from her arm. Photo by Brian Miller, November 2007.

A haenyeo diver removes an octopus from her arm. Photo by Brian Miller, November 2007.

A few years later, when I became pregnant, my mother-in-law told me in passing that she had commissioned a haenyeo for an abalone. She meant that she had asked a diver acquaintance to call her if she caught one, so that she could buy it. I didn’t think much of it. But when I received a package containing a palm-sized live abalone in the mail, I remembered her words. The gravity of the event hit me like a wave. A woman I did not know had dived beneath the sea and scraped the tenacious abalone from a rock—possibly going back a few times to do it—and saved it for me, as I was growing a little fetus and presumably needed the nourishment. And it was brought to my doorstep by another woman, who wished dearly for me to have it.

At that moment, I understood something about why it is so difficult for Koreans to give up on the haenyeo. They fear losing the human element, a persistent and vexing connection between labor and their love for a story that sticks as persistently and stubbornly in their minds as the abalone itself. The desire to preserve haenyeo has more to do with longing for the past than planning for the future. Even if the work is not always as beautiful as it is sometimes made out to be, imagining a future without it is simply impossible.

As I stared down at the squirming shellfish in the insulated Styrofoam box, suddenly conscious of the life I was carrying, it all made sense. Despite all of my reservations about the haenyeo, my inner critic was silent for once, unable to contain the weight of this heavy history.

Featured image: A haenyeo, floating in the water, holds up her catch. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Ann Meejung Kim is a Ph.D. student in the Composition and Rhetoric Program in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests lie in the intersection between the environment and national and individual identity, especially concerning built environment and the ways in which they are shaped by rhetoric. Her writing has also appeared in Seoul Journal of Korean Studies and Korea Journal. She earned her masters at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea and her B.A. at Cornell University. Contact.

5 Responses

  1. Yvonne says:

    Thank you – interesting & thought-provoking on different levels. And while it is about something quite unique, it has such wide resonance.

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