Haenyeo: The Korean Mermaids

In Korean, the word haenyeo (해녀), means literally “sea woman”. The story of the haenyeo (also known as “Korean mermaids” or “Jeju mermaids”) is one of the most interesting stories that one can hear in Korea. The truth is that there are many versions of this story, and noone seems to know which one is the right one. After doing some research on the Internet, it seems that the haenyeo phenomenon started around the late 19th century, early 20th, although I have read some people saying that the haenyeo (understood as women who dive to fish and hence survive) were in Korea as early as 400 b.c.).

During our trip to Jeju (more exactly in Udo Island) we had the chance to see the haenyeo in action.

In the old times, on the southern Korean Islands, most of the population made a living from fishing. Many fishermen died while fishing due to the bad weather and the storms, and widowed women were forced to raise their children alone, so they started fishing underwater. And this is how the haeneyo started (at least this seems to be the most accepted version). This way of fishing started getting more and more populare among the female population (also partly due to the fact that women didn’t pay taxes, while men did) and daughters of these women started fishing too, creating a tradition which seems to be doomed to disappear.

These women can descend down to 20 meters or even deeper, holding their breath for several minutes. They say that years and even evolution/natural selection made their bodies specially suited to bear the low temperature of the water, as well as pressure changes (whoever has done diving will know that going down to 20 meter is not a joke). That’s why the haenyeo are usually called “Korean mermaids” or “Jeju mermaids”. This job is mainly done in summer, but also in winter, despite the low water temperature. Even though nowadays the haenyeo use neoprene and weights, in the old times, these elements were not used.

Nowadays, the younger women in Jeju don’t want to continue such a hard job, and they usually move to the city and study, or just live from tourism, main source of income in the area. According to the wikipedia, today there are around 5,000 haenyeo registered as such, out of which 85% are over 50 years old.

Their appearance is that of a person that has been working hard all her life, with their faces tanned by the sun. By the way, if you were hoping to see mermaids like those in the movies or cartoons for children, I’m sorry, I couldn’t see any either 🙂

Here is where the haenyeo sell their catch.

Althogh nowadays the haenyeo use neoprene suits, this activity used to be done without any kind of special protection against the cold waters.

Here is the catch. Shells, sea urchins, and conchs that they will sell to the restaurants in the island.

A closer view.

This miss haenyeo just finished her day.

Usually the heanyeo carry that buoy to signal their location when they are ascending.

In the museo de las Haenyeo you can see how the haenyeo used to fish in the past, with its tratidional suit (picture by karendotcom127).

To finish this post, here is the trailer of the movie “My Mother The Mermaid”, a Korean movie that shows the haenyeo. It is a movie about a girl (the Korean actress Do-Yeon Jeon, who travels past in time and gets to know her mother when she was a haenyeo in Jeju. In the trailer you can see the haenyeo diving. You can also see how they differentiate the mother from the daughter (both are played by Do-Yeon) by using a darker skin and more “wild” behavior on the mother (a characteristic of Jeju natives).

Trip to Jeju Island

All Koreans are so proud of this island. And truth be said, they can be proud of it. Jeju is a volcanic island of about 1,800 square kilometers located down south of Korea. Now that I have visited this island, I regret I didn’t do it before, and almost for sure I will go again next summer 🙂

mapa jeju

Jeju has many characteristic things, nice people, fresh fish, black pig samgyeobsal, you name it. Also, on the island, a kind of Korean dialect is spoken. Even though the do use Hangeul as writing system, this language is so different from Korean that not even Koreans from the peninsula are able to understand it.

Hallasan soju (soju is the Korean national drink) is undoubtedly the best I have ever drunk. In Seoul it is quite difficult to find it, and even I heard that it is forbidden to sell it in Seoul since some local soju brands complained about it (I don’t know if that is true or not, but what is clear is that Jeju soju is quite better than that from Seoul).

The Seongsan Ilchulbong, o Sunrise Peak for foreigners. It is a crater that during sunrise is considered one of the most beautiful scenes you can see in Korea. You can see much better pictures than this one here.

From Jeju you can take this ship (you can take your car if you rent one) which in about ten minutes will take you to Udo, another island even smaller and prettier (I will talk about this island in the next post).

Jeju is also the preferred destination for many in-love and just-married Korean couples. When these couples travel, it is a must to wear these couple-t-shirts.

Jeju’s black pork is delicious! One of the things that makes it different from the samgyeopsal you can eat in Seoul is that in Jeju it is eaten with the skin.

Of course, we couldn’t leave the island without livint its nightlife. Thanks to Shienna and one of her uncles, we could go for free to one of the biggest clubs I have ever been.

In our last day in Jeju, we went to eat pheasant, another typical meal of Jeju. This is the restaurant where we had lunch. Like most restaurants in Korea, you have to eat on the floor and with your shoes off.