The combined efforts of three massive volcanic eruptions, between 1.2 million and 300,000 years ago brought into existence South Korea’s largest island: Jeju. To the south of the Korean mainland, between China in the west and Japan in the east, Jeju is otherwise known as the Island of the Gods.
Unlike mainland Koreans, who are believed to have descended form Dangun (the demigod born of a deity and bear-turned woman), the indigenous people of Jeju have their own three myths of origin: that of the cosmos, the island itself, and its human inhabitants. The latter tells a tale of three demigods, Ko, Yang and Bu, who rose from volcanic caves (or lava tubes, earlier believed to lead to the sacred Underworld), deep in the earth to marry three princesses from another land (arguably Japan). This union laid the groundwork for the rise of the Tamna Kingdom, on which Jeju’s culture is based.
Oddly enough, like its myths, most things in Jeju tend to come in threes, whether they be samda (the three abundances) of wind, rock and women, or sammu (the three absences) of thieves, gates and beggars. More notably however, Jeju was once known as the “island of three misfortunes” due to its high mountains, harsh winds and unproductive soil. Jeju’s crowing glory however, is unquestionably its three UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites; Halla National Park, Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong) and the Geomun Oreum Lava Tube System. Access is conditional on ones level of physical and mental fitness, and the ability to stay calm when you cannot feel your toes.
The tourism economy of Jeju is predicated in part on the uniqueness of its culture and its astounding natural diversity. In 2011, Jeju was named one of the seven New Wonders of the World and is a step further in achieving its dream of becoming the World Environment Capital. Even as forthcoming developmental plans (especially the construction of a naval base) continue to cast a mighty shadow over Jeju, its people are more determined than ever to stand by their motto of “First Conservation, then Development”. These days Jeju is becoming popular as a honeymoon destination!
The TALE OF Diving Grannies!
From the depths of the Yellow Sea rise dark figures, silhouetted against the afternoon sun. They make their way to shore with quick short strokes, dragging baskets behind it with practiced ease. In a remarkable display of skill and ingenuity (not to mention, matriarchal superiority), the haenyeo, or women divers, have been scouring the ocean floor for decades around the South Korean island of Jeju. They free-dive for unlikely marine resources like ablone, sea urchins, octopus and conch! Never a profitable activity this was considered an unsuitable livelihood for men. But back in the 18th century an inspiring group of women realized that they didn’t have to pay taxes on income gained from this and made it a living!
Haenyeo begin diving by early adolescence. Advanced divers travel out to deep waters by boat, reserving the shallow areas along the coastline for shellfish gathering by elderly or frail haenyeo. The profession is based on sound principles of ecological sustainability including re-seeding programmes, limitations on the number of diving days, and monthly dives to collect trash. The haenyeo do not use breathing equipment so as to limit their diving time and harvest, thus avoiding over-fishing.
Only haenyeo above the age of 55 now remain on the island, the younger women are lured away by more promising opportunities on the mainland. Modernized methods of ocean fishing and aquaculture, and a notable decrease in marine resource stocks have contributed to the profession’s extinction rate. At present there are 100 collectives along Jeju’s coastline, although the number of registered haenyeo numbers less than 5,000.
Jeju is sometimes known as the “Island of Women”, largely due to the haenyeo occupation and its economic influence throughout time (as well as the disproportionately high female population on the island). The people of Jeju place a high value on the profession as a form of indigenous marine stewardship, eco-feminism and as an example of benefits sharing. The culture and profession of the haenyeo plays an important role in Jeju’s quest towards become a World Environment Capital. Be that as it may, within a couple of decades, the haenyeo story may be one found only in history books.