They are like mermaids with their own singing, the Haenyeo community on the island of Jeju (South Korea) is a women’s group who use the diving technique to immerse through the wonderful seas that belong to Jeju and get from those, different species of seafood, therefore they get the economic support of their households.
The Haenyeo community is formed by women in the upper age range whose objective is to get seafood. They work full shifts that vary between 6 and 7 hours a day to get it. Using a neoprene suit without oxygen masks for diving, the Haenyeo women can immerse to 10 meters underwater using their own diving way namely “muljil” (물질) and their sing called “sumbisori” (숨비소리) that is the whistle that they issue when they arrive to the surface combined between CO2 expulsion and oxygen inhalation which stands out among the silence of the sea and is part of their identity.
How does the Haenyeo community arise? It originated many centuries ago during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). At that time, various mollusks that were fished used to be offered to the emperors of that lineage. That’s how this knowledge has been transmitted from generation to generation to the present day. Likewise, clothing has also evolved over the years to venture into the depths of the sea since they only used to wear white cotton suits in the past.
Sea women are classified into 4 ranges: Hagun (하) they are trainees who dive around 3 to 5 meters depth, Junggun (중군) to 5 meters, Sanggun (상군) to 8 meters, and finally Daessangun (대상군) who are capable to dive up to 10 meters underwater. Besides this, the Daessangun achieve the perfect diving technique and they take over the role of group leaders, being responsible for ensuring the safety of all.
For their value, in 2016 Unesco declared the Haenyeo culture as part of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity. On the other hand, the Haenyeo school of Jeju namely Hansupul (한수풀) that exists since 2008, in which some women of the Haenyeo community pass on their knowledge and teach the “muljil” technique to all those who want to continue with the legacy. Thereby, this knowledge will be passed on to the next generations, preventing the Haenyeo culture and their community from disappearing.
To conclude, sea women are educated from an early age to reach the level where they can share their techniques and their experiences with those who are trainees. The purpose is to continue with the tradition of this wonderful culture that represents Jeju island and therefore South Korea. Furthermore, the sea women play an important role in society, since they are proof of the importance of gender equality that’s why they are a great symbol of strength and resistance, as well as the conservation of the aquatic environment. Due to this fact, their objectives as Haenyeo culture are focused on allowing the free regeneration of aquatic organisms, thereby causing a fair trade.
AJ+. (July 24, 2022). Why Are Korea’s Sea Women Disappearing? [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uESdgYGQl0
Alemany, A. (April 26, 2020). La Comunidad Haenyeo: mujeres de los mares en el Siglo XXI. Nueva Tribuna. https://www.salyroca.es/articulo/arte/comunidad-haenyeo-mujeres-mares-siglo-xxi/20200426135411006448.html
Público. (July 4, 2017). Haenyeo, las abuelas buceadoras de la isla de Jeju. https://www.publico.es/viajes/haenyeo-las-abuelas-buceadoras-de-la-isla-de-jeju/
Written by: Britany Sosa
Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero