Haenyeo: Celebrating tenacious South Korean sea women

The special exhibition “HAENYEO – Women of the Sea” at the Maritime Museum of Denmark celebrates the sheer tenacity of the Jeju women, some who are in their eighties, who make a living free diving gathering shellfish and octopus, in the face of a perilous ocean environment. 

What they do has been described as earning money in hell to spend it in this world. The sea’s water surface is a border between safety and vulnerability. Every time they enter the ocean, as their job is so dangerous, they cross the fine line between life and death. The workplace can, in the twinkle of an eye, become a graveyard.

An average of four to five Haenyeo die every year. They face risks and hazards from maritime traffic, currents, tides and getting caught in floating seaweed. A Haenyeo is more prone to accidents if she is tired, cold or sick. 

Be that as it may, the biggest risk, as simple as it sounds, is running out of oxygen. Every Haenyeo knows how long she can hold her breath and at what point she needs to resurface for air. 

However, every Haenyeo is tempted by a valuable catch and may chase it, losing track of time and oxygen need. If the Haenyeo rushes and exerts herself more than she needs to, she may consume rapidly more oxygen.

The sea women, known in Korean as Haenyeo, hail from the island province of Jeju, earn an income from diving for octopus and shellfish such as sea urchins, conch and abalones on the ocean floor without using an oxygen tank. They dive as deep as 20 meters for one to three minutes at a time, seven hours a day, 90 days of the year. 

Haenyeo have lead weights strapped to their waists to sink faster and they leave a flotation device (tewak in Korean) on the surface with a net hanging beneath it to store all their catch. They also use a sharp tool to dig their catch from crevices on the seafloor.

There are strict rules prohibiting the use of modern technologies, and about which seafood to gather and when to do so, to avoid overfishing and over exploitation of the natural resources.

For their trouble, Haenyeo take home about four to five million won (US$3,223 to $4,209) a month, with many earning extra by working at farms and rice paddies during the off season. Haenyeo work in groups according to their physical abilities, e.g., how long they can hold their breath. It takes 20 to 25 years for a Haenyeo to be fully trained.

The Haenyeo are the primary breadwinners of their families, with the men taking care of domestic chores and looking after children. This tradition began in the 17th century when many of the men were conscripted to the army, died at battlefields or lost their lives while fishing. 

On a typical day of work, Haenyeo start the day by checking the weather and sea conditions. With centuries of institutional experience, decades of real experience gained from working in the sea, and local knowledge, they are accurate in gauging wind, wave, temperature and current and they make a general consensus of whether to dive or not.

If they decide to go ahead, they will check their equipment – nets, weights and floats, and apply wormwood and toothpaste to their masks to prevent misting. Also, they do not eat or drink during their long working day because they do not want to disrupt their work or go to the toilet.

Chae Jiae, a 35-year-old Haenyeo said: “The pressure made it hard to swallow the food, and I got nausea. Instead, I concentrate on my work, so I forget that I am thirsty and hungry.”

After years of diving, Haenyeo’ bodies are worn down by the cold, water pressure, carbon dioxide, lack of sufficient oxygen, and they suffer chronic headache, joint pain, constipation, dizziness and tinnitus. Before diving, they take pain relievers like aspirins and traditional remedies like sumbegi, a type of berry, to counter headaches.

Despite the dangerous working conditions, the reality is that life on Jeju island is hard and the Haenyeo have no other career choice. However, in recent times, there is a decline in their numbers. At its peak, there were 23,000, while there are now 4,500 of which only 2,500 work full-time, with the vast majority over sixty years old. 

Besides the fact that this is back-breaking labor in treacherous conditions, the rise of the tourism industry on Jeju, increased opportunities for higher education for women and the movement to mainland cities for employment are some of the major factors contributing to the decline.

Today, Haenyeo are celebrated as one of Jeju’s most valued treasures. In 2016, the culture of the Jeju Haenyeo was added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

The entrance, a sloping downward ramp, to the Maritime Museum of Denmark.

The Haenyeo exhibit hall.

A Haenyeo portrait.

A Haenyeo portrait.

A Haenyeo portrait.

On the right is the flotation device (tewak in Korean) with a net hanging beneath it to store all a Haenyeo’s catch.

A net to hold a day’s catch.

The catch of a Haenyeo includes kelp, abalone, seaweed, red algae, and conch.

Tools of the trade, use to pick and pry abalones, sea urchins, octopuses and seaweed.

Diving googles and masks.

In this special exhibition are 28 photographic portraits of Haenyeo shot by South Korean photographer Hyung S. Kim. The photos captured the women coming out of the sea after a strenuous and dangerous workday. They were tired and breathless, but at the same time, strong and powerful, and this is precisely the state that Kim wanted to portray: authentic and raw emotions.

Kim chose to put up white canvas as the backdrop for the photoshoot because he did not want any other visual elements to distract the focus on the Haenyeo. Kim did not want the ocean, shoreline, seafood, net or float to take away attention. 

Instead, he hoped the viewers can singularly concentrate on the Haenyeo’s faces, bodies and postures to get a feel of how the Haenyeo were feeling at the precise moment they emerged from the sea. 

The photos radiate the indomitable spirit of the Haenyeo: fiercely independent nature, iron will, determination, defiance, and most of all, incredible mental strength in the face of the all-powerful forces of nature. But at the same time, they also show human fragility.

Before Kim met an older Haenyeo in 2012, he has worked as a commercial photographer for 20 years. This Haenyeo made a deep impact on him and he has since changed his professional specialty and began to focus on the Haenyeo.

“I found something beautiful and stronger than any beautiful actress, in the wrinkled face of the woman by the sea. A tired but cheerful face after an exhausting working day, reflected in the seawater,” Kim said.

The writer enjoys the Haenyeo exhibit at the Maritime Museum of Denmark.

Looking at the wishes written on green paper. In Jeju, the paper are hang on a tree or place on an altar for the sea goddess.

Sarah Giersing, head of exhibitions, Maritime Museum of Denmark, said: “Maritime history is about people and their relation to the sea. It’s often about controlling or exploiting the sea, but the Haenyeo culture shows us a different way of living with the sea – in harmony, togetherness and with sustainability is a guiding star. 

“We think this is inspirational in a time where all of us need to learn how to be in and with nature in a sustainable way. It’s also the first exhibition with female leading characters at the museum – but it will definitely not be the last. At the Maritime Museum of Denmark, we work towards expanding the maritime history and include new perspectives and voices.” 

The health of the ocean and the survival of mankind is inextricably linked. We have to respect the ocean and the ocean will provide for us. In the face of the current urgent ocean crisis and degradation, the story of the Haenyeo offers inspiration and a ray of hope. 

The time for talk is over. Instead of paying lip service and catering to special interest groups, if governments, policymakers and all stakeholders take concrete and immediate actions, then perhaps, there is light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

All photos credit: Lee Liang Ying. Taken at the Maritime Museum of Denmark, August 25, 2023.

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