Korea is filled with amazing historic and cultural attractions, from Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul to the beautiful hanok village in Jeju. However, the Jeju Island female divers ‘Haenyeo’ are one of South Korea’s most fascinating cultural assets. This type of dive-fishing one of the most interesting aspects of Korean culture today and can not only be admired from ashore but also actively taken part in with the real-life mermaids of Korea on Jeju Island.
Who Are the ‘Haenyeo’ Women?
This form of dive-fishing originates from Jeju Island and has been in practice since 434 A.D. Since most of the so-called sea women (해녀; 海女) are over 50 years old, with many engaging in the practice in their late 70s, it is also one of the most interesting aspects of Korean culture today.
On many of the islands of Jeju, sea-diving was the sole source of income, leading to a reversal of gender roles quite untypical in Korean society. Men would look after the children and go shopping while the women would bring in money for the family working as Haenyeo on the island.
Since early 2017, the Jeju Island female divers ‘Haenyeo’ are listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, making it an important cultural asset of Korea. The Haenyeo women are celebrated as one of Jeju’s most valued treasures and even the Korean government subsidizes their gear, grants them exclusive rights to sell fresh seafood and provides free health care for all ‘sea women’.
Haenyeo for Sustainability
What impressed me the most was the focus on sustainability of the Haenyeo culture. The fishing is very regulated for the Haenyeo and only certain types of seafood can be harvested at certain times of the year. On top of that, the women divers do not use any underwater diving equipment to gather various shellfish and seaweed, but rather collect all the seafood with their hands using special gloves.
Additionally, each fishing village has its designated area to fish in autonomously. Local authorities also control diving and non-diving days, regulate working hours and the size of the catches. The use of technology when diving for seafood is also not allowed.
This way, the tradition of the Haenyeo is being kept alive and the oceans are being kept clean and filled with marine life.
If you are interested in the history of the Haenyeo, I highly recommend visiting the Haenyeo Museum in Jeju. The temporary exhibitions explain everything about the life of the Jeju Haenyeo, the history of the practice and the workplace of the Haenyeo. The museum is very modern and perfectly combines technology with the old artifacts. You get to see traditional Haenyeo houses, fishing villages, traditional cuisine, Haenyeo clothing and gear and also old paintings and texts mentioning the old practice.
Kids can dive into the Haenyeo experience at the children’s playground of the museum. Here, they learn all about the sea women through games. This involves a 3D Haenyeo movie and activities such as holding your breath like a Haenyeo, jumping over water, rockpooling or cleaning ocean trash.
Hado-ri Village haenyeo experience
The Hado-ri Village offers a unique Haenyeo experience program allowing visitors to participate in the traditional sea-diving art of the Jeju sea women. This experience is available between March and November. All you need is basic swimming skills and a swimsuit you’ll wear under the Haenyeo suit. The experience takes about 2 hours and you can eat all of the seafood you catch!
Hado-ri Village coast
1897-27, Haemajihaean-ro, Gujwa-eup, Jeju City
March to November (Must be reserved in advance)
20,000 won (Groups of five or more)
064-783-1996 or visit here for more details.