Haenyeo - Seeing the Incredible Women Divers of Jeju Island - South Korea!
The Haenyeo (women divers), some in their 80s, dive to collect seaweed, shellfish and other seafood in a unique way (Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO). You can still see some of these sea mermaids 'at work' and learn all about their history and culture in the Haenyeo museum on Jeju island. Continue reading for impressive facts and practical information.
Haenyeo at performance at Sunrise Peak / Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea.
Did you know flying from Seoul to Jeju island is the busiest air route in the world?
Maybe you have never heard of Jeju, but this island has many natural and cultural wonders to explore.
From all the things you can see and do on beautiful Jeju island, seeing Haenyeo (sea women) at work is for sure one of the best Jeju experiences, especially for divers. There are various options and locations to learn more about these incredible women, the Haenyeo of Jeju.
Haenyeo women divers in Jeju - Why this is so Remarkable
Haenyeo (sea women) catch sea food for a living with only a knife while holding their breath. They are breath-hold diving, or free diving, down to about 10 meters / 30 feet, for minutes - depending on their experience. The first records of Haenyeo catching abalone (shellfish) are from 1629, can you imagine the diving equipment around 1629? (Zero-to-none)
As Jeju island is a volcanic island and seems always windy, the water temperatures and diving conditions are changing as well as the tides. These women were diving the whole day in cotton clothes (mulsojungi) without a proper cap until the 1970s when wetsuits appeared .
This is Haenyeo diving equipment used today. Don't try this at home!
Compare this with people nowadays fun diving around Jeju in dry suits...
While the water and weather conditions are challenging (or even dangerous) as well as not having a proper exposure suit, there is something more remarkable. In the old days drinking water was scarce, so a dehydration problem was around the corner, and these women were also taking care of their children and the household full time. Young girls helped with carrying water and learning how to dive and catch seaweed and shellfish around 8 years old. With these long and challenging days the women became a great example of women's strength, dedication and empowering spirit in South Korea. But what were the men of Jeju doing?
While on the mainland of Korea women would mainly take care of the household and men earned the living, on Jeju women did both for ages. One of the reasons was simple, there were a lot more women than men on the island for a long time - someone has to do it. Another one is the Korean war that pushed the women on this island to engage in economic activities of which catching seafood is the most remarkable as education was lacking.
The women were educating each other through years of experience. There are three Haenyeo levels to achieve by experience: Sanggun, junggun and hagun. Haenyeo women divers exist in South Korea (Jeju only) and in Japan (Ama divers).
Learn more about the Haenyeo in the video of UNESCO at the bottom of this page.
Where to See the Jeju Women Divers on Jeju Island
Haenyeo at work at the Haenyeo Women Diver Show Jeju Island, South Korea.
Haenyeo Women Diver Show at Seongsan Ilchulbong - What to Expect
If you visit the island, you are likely to plan to hike up the volcanic crater of Jeju called Sunrise Peak or Seongsan Ilchulbong (성산 일출봉) in Seongsan-ri.
This is exactly where you can see the Haenyeo Women Diver Show at 1:30 PM and 3 PM.
After you pay your entrance fee of around 2 USD you can walk to the Sea Women Restaurant (see Google Maps or Naver) or House of Women Diver.
At this place the women are going to catch sea food right in front of your eyes and they will prepare the food straight away so you can buy a plate to try.
NOTE: Do not expect an entertainment show, interesting speech off or photo shoot with these old women. The Haenyeo Women Diver Show in Seongsan-ri is set-up for you to experience their job/culture as it is still happening today, it is not a script performance.
SCUBA diving with Haenyeo is therefore also something you are not going to experience when you are just 'stopping-by'. These women are to themselves, although there are many tourists visiting their show, please treat these women with a lot of respect. You will probably get a bit of a mixed feeling as well, joining a show as a tourist as well as wanting to absorb as much as possible from this impressive cultural heritage. Still I would recommend you to go, saying this as a person that does not want to be 'entertained' (theme parks/aquariums/musicals).
Haenyeo Women Diver Show at Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea.
Haenyeo Women at Work - Where to Experience the Haenyeo Heritage Without a Performance
Haenyeo equipment hanging to dry (buoy, surface net and knife) at Seobudo Myeongpum Raw Fish Street.
Apart from seeing the Jeju women diver show at set times, you can see Haenyeo at work around Jeju island. While the younger generations of women now choose education and often move to the bigger cities to work, you still have a good change of seeing Haenyeo (depending on the season).
In Jeju City, Jeju-si you can go to Seobudo Myeongpum Raw Fish Street (search for Seodubu breakwater with Naver / Haejin with Google Maps). This street is full of live seafood restaurants, some have the Haenyeo equipment hanging to dry around the corner. With raw or live fish they mean seafood that is alive, it looks more like a pet store or aquarium when you see the restaurants.
Raw fish restaurants (live sea food) at Jeju-si - often still moving on your plate!
You can choose your food from the tank - and don't be surprised if it is served alive (still moving on your plate!).
If you don't eat fish for the love of marine life and conservation - stay away from this street as well as the (fish) markets!
NOTE: The seafood in these restaurants is probably not only caught by Haenyeos.
The best place to see Haenyeo women in real life is Seongsan-ri, the village next to the Seongsan Ilchulbong crater. It is quite impressive to see Haenyeo walking in their rubber suits with their orange buoys and nets (the nets stay on the surface to hold what they have collected) on the street while tourists pass by with their suitcases, it's a strange mix. If you visit the waterfront on both sides before the entrance of the crater, along Ilchul-ro, you might see Haenyeo as well. Navigate to 성산스쿠버리조트(PADI) / scuba resort seongsan and 296-16 Seongsan-ri, Seongsan-eup with Google Maps. The last one sells plates of seafood as well, in a local setting.
The Haenyeo I have seen are not keen on being photographed or interviewed, they just do their job with pride (no photos out of respect). The mixture of continuing a dying culture and sharing it with the world in a way that does not look like a human zoo experience (watching the Haenyeo like you can watch animals in a zoo) makes it really interesting. To learn more I went to the Haenyeo Museum.
Bulteok (where the Haenyeo would rest, change clothes and exchange knowledge) in the Haenyeo Museum, Jeju, South Korea.
Visiting the Haenyeo Museum to Learn more about this Impressive Cultural Heritage
Even if you have done your homework and have gathered a lot of information about the Haenyeo online - the Haenyeo museum (visit the official website) will still be an eye-opener in many ways - especially as a diver. You can walk through the culture from the beginning and learn a lot about the 'evolution' of these women divers regarding equipment, spirituality, training and sustainability.
Most of the information is translated in English amongst other languages. Especially the information about the Sumbisori, the whistling sound Haenyeo make on the surface impressed me. Remember the risk of a shallow water blackout due to hyperventilating prior to a dive?
After visiting all the exhibitions you should make sure to watch the mini-documentary in the 'cinema' close to the entrance to learn even more. There is a huge themed children's play area including breath holding games and make sure to visit the observatory from where you might see Haenyeo at work in the sea or around the bulteoks (resting/preparing place next to the water) - not guaranteed of course.
Photo of Haenyeo Women Divers in the Haenyeo Museum on Jeju Island, South Korea.
Watch the video of the culture of Haenyeo by UNESCO
Compare the Haenyeo divers of South Korea with the Ama Divers of Japan.
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