“I have been diving since I was 15″ Kim says, “and now I am 70.” She is one of the five thousand diving women on the small South Korean Island Jeju.The divers go under the name “haenyeo” or “mermaids” and that for good reasons. Some of them can reach 30 meters under the water surface and hold their breath up to 3 minutes.
Jeju is a vulcanic island and farming is limited. The nutrition from the sea have become crucial for the people and the art of diving has been tranfered from mother to daughter for hundreds of years. There is a saying that girls learn to swim before the can walk. Furthermore, the diving has given women economical and political power in a south Korean society which originally is confucian. The old saying at Jeju Island shows a different picture:
“Have a baby girl, and we will throw a pork barbecue party; have a baby boy, and we will kick his ass.”
But despite of this Kim emphasize that “I dont want my grandchildren to become a heanyeo. The work is both hard and dangerous. It is better to be born a cow, than a women”. She laughs while pulling of her rubber hood. The wetsuit smells like tractor tyres. “We are living in a another time now. The youngsters have different choices. We actually use the money we earn from diving to sponsor education for our children.” In 1970´s there was about 30 000 female divers, now there is only 5000 left. The recruitment is low and the cultural practice is most probably only seen at museums and touristshows in the future.
At first I thought it was sad to hear that the traditional practice may be discountinued in the modern context. But the most important after all is the well being of the local people. By adapting to the flux of life, the divers daughters find better ways to keep their heads over the water.