Lee Oh Ji, a haeneyo of Seongsang ri on Jeju Island
What do the Lockness Monster, the Yeti and the Jeju Island Haeneyo (aka Korean Mermaids ) have in common? Well they’re all legends, except the Korean Mermaids aren’t myths, but real life people.
In visiting Jeju Island, mermaid spotting was one of my curiosities. Being an island girl myself, my connection to the sea as one giant maternal seductress is unconsciously strong; as a little girl I’d have many mermaid dreams and about living near the ocean. Hence, my attraction to the legend of Jeju mermaids. But before I tell you about my pursuit of the latter…
What is a Korean Mermaid?
Korean Mermaids known as haeneyo, are the female free divers of Jeju Island and the last of a dying tradition. The ajummas of the sea, they can hold their breath up to three minutes as they descend into deep ocean waters for abalone and shellfish to sell at the market. When they finally come up for air and break through the ocean’s surface, their expelled breath makes a high-pitched whistling sound, much like a dolphin. The whistle is said to come from the physical pressure of the haeneyo holding their breath in deep water for so long and thus, is the signature sound of these women as they work.
Once known as the bread-winners of Jeju Island, supporting both family and community with their trade, the haeneyo were also prized as Jeju’s secret revolutionaries. Schooled at night, the haeneyo were selected by a secret organization to protect the island against Japanese occupation.
The modern day Jeju haeneyo
Perhaps what makes these women divers most remarkable nowadays, is the fact that most of them are well over the age of 50; yet they continue to gather at their local community house each morning, suit up and take a boat out to sea for work. The Styrofoam buoys they take with them are spotters, helping them locate their position in the ocean; meanwhile, traditional bathing suits have been traded in for modern rubber wet suits and weighted vests or belts. Despite slightly modern upgrades to their profession, the work is still physically demanding.
The haeneyo take very few tools with them and must occasionally weather cold temperatures, as some dive down to 20 meters or more. During the warm seasons, you might easily find these women diving along the coastal waters of all around Jeju and Udo Islands, but in colder seasons, they work less frequently.
Unfortunately, these days the lineage is fading and the trade is threatened with extinction. In the past, the diving trade was passed down to daughters, but these days the young often leave to seek better work and an easier life in the city. Today, there are over 4,000 haeneyo registered on and around Jeju Island.
(Above) The haenyo divers in earlier days, pre-rubber wet suits. (Below) The Haenyo Museum.
My Search for Jeju’s fierce female divers
I got up early to catch a 3 hour bus ride to the Seongsang-ri Harbor to catch a glimpse of the haenyo suiting up for their morning dive. When I arrived, it occurred to me, my location details were too vague and the harbor was completely industrial with cargo ships, large crates and the smell of oil. Definitely no haenyo. It was a dead-end.
My time was short and split with another traveler’s itinerary, my window of opportunity for this hunt felt narrow. I should’ve planned better ; now I was kicking myself …
Frustrated but fortunate, I was about to give up when I happened upon an Olle trail, which led me to …a cove…
(Above) I was definitely close …
(unfortunately, having a friend along, my schedule could not align with this time)
Traces of haeneyo!!!
The door was open and well okay, I invited myself in for peek! Afterall, this legacy of all female divers are a true inspiration that I wanted to document; I wanted to learn more about them.
The house was a gathering place for the haenyo, a community house. The upstairs of the house offered a simple wooden floor dining area, open to passing seafood dining customers, while the basement lay as the main equipment and dressing room. Over a dozen rubber wetsuits hung out to dry on rope lines, along with rubber flippers, diving gloves and fishing baskets. But where were the inhabitants? Not a mermaid was in sight.
“Igot, haeneyo chibe? Haenyo, odiesoyo?” (rough trans: This is a haenyo house? Where are the haeneyo?“)
This was the best Korean I could muster. Lee Oh Ji responded with warm enthusiasm– she was a haenyo! She led me back into the equipment room to show me around. Success!
While I’d love to say I uncovered more of mermaid life, I didn’t pierce more than the surface. The time factor was really weighing closing in on me. Unfortunately, I never got to see these mermaids in action ( read Back in Seoul’s experience of the Jeju haeneyo) . So, perhaps I’ll have to save my mermaid hunting for another time. Hopefully, mermaid dreams come calling again!
Want to learn more about the haeneyo?
The Haeneyo Museum (aka Anti-Japanese Memorial Museum)
Hours: 09:00 – 18:00 (closed every first Monday)
Haeneyo Diving Demonstration
Take bus route 12 to Seongsan Ilchulbong. Take the stairway to the cove, just north of Sunrise Peak. Performances at approx. 1:30 & 3 pm
Read my Jeju Island Travel Survival Guide for more tips about traveling in Jeju Island.