Korean island women carry on diving tradition

The sea is restless as Kim Jae-yeon perches on the rocky shoreline, eyeing the churning waters at her feet. Slowly, she wipes her goggles with a fistful of grass to keep them from fogging underwater and offers a prayer to the pounding surf for her good fortune.

Like six generations of women before her on this treeless speck of land in the East China Sea, the young mother of two is preparing for a dangerous job no man here is allowed to perform: free-diving for minutes at a time to catch abalone and other shellfish.

Kim is learning to join the ranks of the haenyeo, or women of the sea, whose role as ocean hunter-gatherers has long given them special status in a Korean culture dominated by men. These women on a group of islands south of the South Korean mainland have turned tradition on its head.

For decades, divers here have groomed their daughters for a life at sea. They teach them how to conserve oxygen to extend their dives and stress the importance of working in groups, like a herd of watchful seals, vigilant against shark attacks, rip currents and marauding motorboats that buzz the surface.

The diving, with its daily hazards and emphasis on teamwork, has molded the women into a cohesive group that has often gathered by the campfire with the day's catch to make decisions about village politics.

But this matriarchal way of life is now in peril. Modern fishing boats that encroach on their catching grounds have reduced the number of shellfish, forcing the haenyeo farther out to sea, leaving them less time to dive.

The diminished catch has made the profession a struggle for survival. Nowadays, the women are able to gather only enough catch to feed their families, with a bit left over to sell to tourists. Shellfish that once was sent to ports such as Japan now stays at home. And, lured away by careers on the mainland, fewer daughters are diving.

The number of haenyeo has plummeted by two-thirds in just a few decades, from 15,000 in the 1970s to slightly more than 5,000 today. On Mara Island, about the size of an 18-hole golf course with a full-time population of 80 residents, the number has dropped from 15 to seven.

At 33, Kim is the youngest haenyeo in South Korea, where half the divers are older than 70 and 90% are least 50. She isn't diving for the money; Kim makes her living by running a restaurant. But following the lead of her mother, aunt and grandmother, she spends most mornings learning an ancient haenyeo trade that connects her to her ancestors.

"It's now or never," she said. "One day, the elders will be gone, and the sea will be mine alone. I want to learn all I can while there's still time. So I can teach the other women who might one day come."

On this morning, a typhoon is gathering 1,000 miles to the south and the swirling currents already thrash angrily. Even with only four years' experience, Kim knows the sea is dangerous enough without bad weather.

As she struggles to put on her wetsuit cap, her aunt, Kim Choun-geum, 56, appears. The older woman patiently assists her niece, whispering words of encouragement. Then student and mentor slip into the churning water to join the others.

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The haenyeo tradition dates back hundreds of years, handed down from mother to daughter, glorified in folk tales and songs. Some say women's body fat enabled them to better endure the cold waters. Others say they're just better divers than the men.

Even now, no man would dream of taking to the waters with the divers. This skill, they know, is women's work, so they stay out of the way.

On these isolated islands, the women are often the breadwinners while the men stay at home to raise the children. The divorce rate is higher here than on the mainland, perhaps driven by the can-do spirit of women who grow weary of spouses who don't pull their weight. The haenyeo have the final word on major decisions.

Like the earliest female sea divers in neighboring Japan, the Korean haenyeo once wore only flimsy cotton gowns that offered no protection against the bone-chilling cold. Working in groups, they pushed makeshift collection nets attached to a surface buoy while diving dozens of times a day, using iron picks and scythes to pry loose the shells from rocks as deep as 60 feet or more. They didn't believe in overfishing, harvesting just enough to get by.

They eventually donned wetsuits, but there's one modern convenience the haenyeo have shunned: oxygen tanks, which would allow them to exhaust the catch too soon.

Despite their caution, accidents are common. Each year a handful of divers die in shark attacks or by drowning. The work also takes a long-term health toll. Like many older haenyeo, Kim's grandmother, Byun Chun-ok, 84, suffers from ear and lung problems. Her joints still ache years after leaving the water for good.

Kim's aunt, Kim Choun-geum, is fully aware of the dangers of her job.

"One mistake and the ocean will kill you," she said. "Our rule is to never get greedy."

Although South Korean officials pledge to help preserve the haenyeo's livelihood, the women say they need financial assistance for child care and medical checkups.

"You can't change depleted resources overnight," said Ham Chun-bo, director of the Haenyeo Museum on Jeju, the main island in the chain. "And even with good policies, you can't force young women to take up this job."

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Kim Jae-yeon never planned on becoming a sea woman.

She grew up on Mara, the kind of place where the unstaffed convenience store still features an honor system. But she fled to attend college on Jeju Island, and later met her husband, Park Hyung-il.

Eventually, after a series of failed businesses, the couple returned to Mara. For Kim, then 29, coming home was life-changing.

One day, while accompanying her aunt into the water, Kim's eyes opened to the sea's allure. After the stress of working office jobs on Jeju, she felt a jolt of freedom.

She started out with the easiest task, collecting seaweed in shallow waters. But even that exhausted her. "Every day I was so tired I'd vomit," she recalled. "The sea is not an easy place to make a living. I came to respect my elders for their survival skills."

She learned that her grandmother was once the island's best diver, who could go the deepest, stay submerged the longest and return with the biggest catch. She heard stories of how the women of her grandmother's day never complained about the cold or danger, instead telling jokes and singing songs to pass the time.

After hauling in their daily catch, the women would sit around a campfire at the beach and discuss village business or compliment one another's fishing skills or bravery in the water that day. It was a simpler, self-sufficient life that Kim wanted for herself.

Although she makes most of her salary from the restaurant, Kim developed the quiet swagger of a haenyeo, bringing home twice as much money as her husband, a coastal preservation worker on Jeju.

"Sometimes it irritates me," Park said. "When we argue, she plays the money card, just like a veteran haenyeo would do."

As their profession wanes, the sea women are returning to a more traditional role. "Eventually we'll give up our power and become like any other Korean woman," Kim Choun-geum said. "That's sad."

But for as long as she can, Kim Jae-yeon, South Korea's youngest haenyeo, will watch her elders to absorb the lessons of the deep. She feels guilty knowing many ignore their own dives to show her the way.

One day, Kim hopes to herself be a teacher to a new generation of haenyeo. She awaits the day her 8-year-old daughter is ready to go to sea.

"I'm already teaching her how to dive," she said. "Whether she wants to become a haenyeo will be up to her."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ethan Kim of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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