The haenyeo, strapping female divers for whom, “the ocean is their lover, their husband, their god”

Posted on : 2015-06-06 14:06 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Filmmaker spent six years gaining access to the enigmatic female divers making a living plunging into the waters off Jeju Island
 female sea diver
female sea diver

When the haenyeo, or female sea divers, of Jeju Island are in the water, there are three items that they always carry: mugwort, chewing gum, and pain reliever.

Rubbing mugwort on their goggles leaves a film that keeps them from fogging up while the haenyeo are underwater. They plug gum they have been chewing in their ears to keep water out. They take the pain reliever to ward off headaches that the water pressure can bring on.

How many hours a day do the haenyeo spend in the water? While it depends on the tides, they dive in around 8 or 9 in the morning and come out around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Surprisingly, there’s no break time in the middle. They don’t even eat breakfast or lunch, in order to prevent stomach cramps.

In short, this is gruelling labor that would be unimaginable for ordinary people.

Most Koreans have heard about the “sumbi” of the haenyeo. This is the sound that the haenyeo make when they have been holding their breath underwater as long as they can and then come to the surface to release it.

There’s also a word that is taboo among the haenyeo: “mulsum,” or “water-breath.” Breathing water instead of air means death.

 makes the “sumbi
makes the “sumbi

Koh Hui-yeong, 50, the director of a documentary that depicts the lives of Jeju’s haenyeo, said that it took her six years to understand the meaning of this word.

Even though the haenyeo have spent their entire lives in the ocean, every year a few of them inhale water and die in the ocean. They know, of course, that inhaling water means death, so why are they unable to resist this fatal temptation?

If “sumbi” is the breath of life that the haenyeo have been holding in, “mulsum” is the breath of death that they have been holding back.

One old haenyeo described “mulsum” as “the one thing that only the haenyeo can breathe underwater.”

It is the breath of the heart that comes when the haenyeo find something precious underwater. But if they swallow that breath instead of letting it go, they die.

This is what the haenyeo know: if they are mastered by their desire, the ocean will become their grave, but if they can master their desire, the ocean will bring them a bounteous life. That’s why the first thing that seasoned haenyeo teach their daughters is how to resist “water-breath.”

“Don’t be greedy and only gather as much as you have breath for,” they say. “Desire is in the eyes. You have to master that desire.”

Koh saw her own life in the “water-breath” of the haenyeo.

“While the haenyeo may all look the same to us, they have a strict hierarchy. There are A-class, B-class, and C-class divers. A-class divers, who stay submerged for about two minutes, work in waters that are at least 15 meters deep. B-class divers work from 8 to 10 meters deep, and C-class divers work from 5 to 7 meters deep,” Koh said.

“Of course, the deeper you go, the more valuable the sea creatures you find. When there is an abundance of sea life, the veteran divers make 1 million won a month [US$890], the intermediate divers 600,000 won [US$535], and the novice divers 300,000 won [US$267]. Ability does not bring you up through the ranks. Rank is determined by order of birth.”

Born on Jeju Island, Koh found herself bored by the endless horizon. After graduating from university at the age of 24, she left her home for the mainland.

Koh had shot around 100 documentaries as a writer for “I Want to Know That” and as a producer for KBS Special when she decided to make a documentary that would tell the story of the haenyeo, whom she had grown up watching.

So she went to Udo (Woo Island). The haenyeo of Udo are said to be the toughest of all the haenyeo on Jeju Island. There are only 698 families, around 1,600 people, living on Woo Island, and as of 2010, 365 of them were haenyeo. 70% of the haenyeo there were more than 65 years old, and only nine of them were in their 40s.

Koh spent about 1,000 days on Udo during six years beginning in the spring of 2008, capturing the lives of the haenyeo on film.

But for the first two years that she brought her camera to the island, she wasn’t able to shoot a single scene. She had to endure verbal abuse; sometimes, she had to dodge rocks that were thrown at the camera. The haenyeo were violently opposed to being filmed.

“There’s a reason the haenyeo don’t like being filmed. They used to be a symbol of abject poverty. Some people still look down on the haenyeo because of their work, and the haenyeo themselves are embarrassed about how they look in the water. This is why it was so hard to get close to them,” Koh said.

For some time, Koh did nothing but deliver bread. Grain is so hard to come by on Woo Island that people put bread on the altar for the ancestral rites.

Every time that Koh came to the island, she would buy some of Jeju Island’s famous barley bread, load it on her bicycle, and offer it as a present to a haenyeo whose acquaintance she had made. She would ride around the island on her bicycle carrying several dozen boxes of bread, which eventually led some to think she was running a bakery.

After this persistent courtship, Koh was at last granted permission to record the daily lives of the haenyeo. But even then, it wasn’t easy to film the haenyeo when they were at work in the water. On land, they may have looked elderly and frail, but once they were in the water, they turned into mermaids.

“It’s just amazing to watch this old haenyeo in her eighties barely manage to walk to the shore, leaning on a stroller because of her bad back, only to then put on her swimsuit, strap a seven- to eight-kilogram of lead to her waist to help her go under, pick up her net to hold the catch and disappear into the water.”

Koh is vocal with her pleas for understanding of the divers.

“Haenyeo have gone into the water and held their breath, and in exchange they’ve gotten food for this world, alcohol for their husbands, notebooks and pencils for their children,” she said. “The ocean is their lover, their husband, their god.”

“Tears streaming from her eyes, the old haenyeo ventures back into the same waves her dead daughter rose up on after getting her foot caught in seaweed while diving,” Koh continued. “There’s one haenyeo who saw her friend dying in front of her after being bitten by a shark while they were diving together. What is it that calls them into the ocean?”

Ko recently published “Mulsum”, an account of her experiences with the haenyeo divers of U-do (Nanam Books), while she finishes the final editing for her documentary of the same name. The film, with a script by ”Hourglass“ author Song Ji-na, is scheduled to premiere this fall.

“I’m going to be a haenyeo myself when I get older,” Koh said. “Even if I’m not even ‘C-class,’ even if I’m ‘nothing-class’ and I have to pick up seaweed on the beach, I’m going to be a haenyeo.

“The ocean is the warm bosom of a mother. You can go there any time, and without a word, it gives you everything.”

By Lee Kil-woo, senior staff writer

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