From the depths of the Yellow Sea rises a dark figure, silhouetted against the afternoon sun. The figure makes its way to shore with quick short strokes, dragging a basket behind it with practiced ease. More figures appear, steadily nearing shore, announcing the arrival of the Diving Grannies.
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 daily for unlikely marine resources as ablone, sea urchins, octopus and conch! Thanks to high taxes, this was never a profitable activity and was considered unsuitable as a livelihood for men. But back in the 18th century an inspiring group of women realized that they didn’t have to pay taxes. Game changer! This loophole soon became 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 on which garbage is collected. The haenyeo do not use breathing equipment so as to limit their diving time and harvest, thus avoiding over-fishing.
The practice of this female dominated profession has developed a uniquely structured community and profound knowledge base on the Jeju marine environment. It is now in eminent danger of extinction however. 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 5000.
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.