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Articles Blog

Juju Island, South Korea

Karyn Planett

Something For Everyone 

You’re late for your hair appointment and if you don’t get there now Monsieur Jacques will give you the stink eye, the cold shoulder, tepid ginger tea and make your hair purple. You can’t find the car keys. Broke a nail on the fridge door trying to retrieve a cold bottle of Voss only to find out someone pinched the last one. Phone rings. Your best friend Dot’s crying over something you said at the ladies luncheon that she took totally the wrong way. School principal calls next. Johnny just got caught spray-painting graffiti on the gym wall, something about your neighbor’s cat. Hubby rings. There’ll be four extra for dinner. Tonight. 

So you’ve had a bad day. 

But when you think you’ve had a bad day, do some Zen breathing and remember the women of Jeju. 

Every Fish Tank Has a Silver Lining 

Traditionally, Haenyeo women are Jeju’s fisherwomen who free dive 60 feet down, no scuba tanks for these ladies, to gather shellfish and sea weed as have generations of women before them. That story follows. But, just know that as of now the times they are a changing. 

According to the Jeju Provisional Government and the Jeju Samda Museum, though Haenyo women have always been respected for their strength and courage, the practice is dying out as local women are now more educated and able to find work that is not nearly as life threatening. Dangers do lurk below in the form of sharks and other hazards and the veteran divers simply don’t want their daughters to enter this profession. As officials noted in their 2005 stats, of the 5,406 women divers 65.8 % are over 60, only 2% are under 30. 

As they sit in their “bulteok” dressing rooms, today’s women divers discuss everything from harvesting seaweed to pricing their catch. In fact, their seating arrangement around the bonfire indicates their rank within this extraordinary matriarchal community that’s kinda like the Yaya Sisterhood and their divine secrets but with wet hair. Once suited up and in the chilling water, they dive for octopus, conch, abalone and sea urchins returning to the seabed over and over during five-hour shifts. Over the years, the women have found other dive sites in Korea, and as far away as Japan, China and even the Russian seaport of Vladivostok. 

At the industry’s peak, there were some 30,000 female divers on this tiny island alone. It all started when the male divers were assessed a tax so women took up the profession. 

Hear their tales of courage, discover their customs, and learn about the specialized gear that includes picks and rakes, floats called taewaks, and swimming goggles known as eyes. Some say the Haenyeo can hold their breath for up to 10 minutes, though 2-3 minutes is more the norm. When they reach the surface, they make a whistling sound to expel carbon dioxide and take in fresh oxygen. 

Today, the women do have better working conditions. They no longer have to till the fields before and after their midday dives. The women are entitled to proper working conditions and income, time off for health reasons, reduced licensing fees, etc. They’re also entitled to operate their own restaurants where they serve their catch, bringing them significant additional income. These smart ladies are now revered as the island’s true feminists. They are the Haenyo, the Korean Grandmother Divers and, to some, even mermaids.

Other Things to Discover 

Jeju Island is 53 miles south of mainland South Korea. Though close enough for contact with the rest of the country, the Jeju people live rather independent lives and even speak a distinct dialect. If you’re confused, just know Jeju was once known as Cheju and is the capital of the entire island of Jejudo. This island, only 25 miles wide and 45 miles long, is popular with vacationing Koreans, honeymooners and others. They come to explore the famous lava tubes and Buddhist temples including Yateheonsa with its large bell. They also find waterfalls like the 23-meter one at Seogwipo known as Jeongbang Falls suitable for photos and a swim, plus some fine beaches and thermal pools. There’s a teddy bear museum as well as several sex museums. So you see, Jeju offers something for everyone, including shoppers. 

Visitors to the island usually take home some traditional fabrics dyed to a stunning color with persimmon juice, or jewelry fashioned from the local black coral. The real adventurers will sample the famous Korean dish of fermented cabbage known as gimchi, or kimchee, sometimes served with a sweet potato wine called Soju. You simply can’t find these specialties at your local hometown eatery, now can you?

Armed with all this knowledge and insight into a destination that’s away from the norm for Western travelers, you have the rare opportunity to experience another side of South Korea. That alone should impress the armchair travelers back home who come along with you on your magic carpet ride. They’ll thank you for the trip.