Four years ago, Ji-ae Chae commuted to her job on the Seoul subway. She spent her days cutting, dyeing, and drying hair at a salon. It was an arduous life: she had trouble finding time to care for her children, she was constantly sick, and interacting with indifferent strangers every day left her drained.
Now, like her mother before her, Chae, 33, spends her working days diving into the Korean Strait without an oxygen tank to gather red sea cucumber, urchins, and abalone from the ocean floor.
Chae is a haenyeo, a traditional profession on her home island of Jeju, South Korea. For centuries, these female divers have eked out a living by plunging into the sea to gather its edible treasures and sell them. In the 1960s, at their apex, there were 23,000 haenyeo women on Jeju, according to the island’s Haenyeo Museum. But now, only 4,300 haenyeo remain; many experts believe this generation will be the last, as young people flee to cities and pollution destroys the haenyeo’s place of work: the fragile aquatic ecosystem of the Strait. As of last year, Jeju was home to only 67 haenyeo under the age of 50.
But as the haenyeo’s numbers have dwindled, interest in them has grown. The aforementioned Haenyeo Museum opened in 2006; in 2015, the Jeju government spent the equivalent of $6.5 million USD on preservation measures for the haenyeo, such as subsidizing the cost of their wetsuits and helping pay for their accident and medical insurance; and in 2016, UNESCO awarded the divers a Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.
Ji-ae Chae outfitted for her day of diving. Haenyeo dive with wetsuits, face masks, flippers, and nets attached to bright orange floats. They don’t use oxygen tanks. All photos by Eric Hevesy
No one’s quite sure when Jeju’s inhabitants first started harvesting shellfish from the ocean floor. Archaeologists have found evidence of shellfish-gathering from as far back as 300 B.C.E., while the first historical mention of divers appeared in a court document from 1460. These early haenyeo contributed to a shell trading network with China and Japan. Then, at some point in the 1600s, women started taking over the diving work. This could be because foreign wars drained Jeju’s men away from the island; it could be because women’s earnings were exempt from the onerous taxes imposed by the Korean king in this era. No one knows for sure. But for whatever reason, the haenyeo became exclusively female, a tradition that’s endured until today.
Experts say that today’s increased interest in the haenyeo stems from the fact that haenyeo is not merely a profession, but a way of life that may soon be lost.
“Over the past 15 years or so, the respect for the haenyeo has risen,” says Brenda Paik Sunoo, a Jeju resident and author of the book Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea. “The [haenyeo’s] legacy is not just economic. It’s social, it’s cultural.”
Chae’s reasons for becoming a haenyeo are certainly a vibrant illustration of haenyeo as a culture, not just a profession. Chae returned to the island because she suspected working beneath the ocean would afford her more freedom, social support, purpose, and work-life balance than laboring in a modern city. Despite the trials and challenges she’s faced, she feels now that she was right.