Student Contest Winner: Haenyeo, Real-Life Aquawomen

This piece is one of 10 winners of our 2022 Profile Contest. You can find more here. Haedam Lee, 14, and Yeonji Joo13, the authors, go to Branksome Hall Asia in Seogwipo City, South Korea.

by Haedam Lee and Yeonji Joo

A cluster of “orange flowers” ​​floats along the wide Jeju ocean, dancing with the waves. Suddenly, “Hwui! Pah… ”and a haenyeo comes out onto the surface of the cold winter sea. She stuffs a small abalone into the net attached to the floating orange buoy and prepares to dive again. In the midst of a gasp from the haenyeo, a whalelike whistle is audible again. This is sumbisori: a sound made in the process of inhaling without the help of any technology by female divers in Jeju, a Korean province.

“Hwui! Hah… ”another catches her breath after a deep dive as the 55-year-old Haenyeo, Lee Ji-hye, takes her turn.

A newbie in the haenyeo society, Ms. Lee moved to Jeju from Seoul six years ago. While working as a diver and harvesting sea creatures for countless hours, Lee found herself exposed to the severity of pollution.

“What used to be the cleanest sea I’ve ever been to is now a field of plastic,” said Ms. Lee.

At first, she was fascinated by the nature of Jeju, as the island was known for its pristine ecosystem. According to Ms. Lee, however, this is no longer the case. In her monthly dives, she encounters waste floating around the ocean.

“We sometimes dive in the ocean just to collect trash,” she said.

Because haenyeos rely on nature and dive without the aid of technology, climate change and pollution pose an imminent threat, as their lives and livelihoods are at risk.

The following are excerpts from conversations with Ms. Lee, translated from Korean and edited for clarity.

What happens in a day in the life of a haenyeo?

First, we meet at the shore and prepare our suits, taewaks [the orange floats that hold the catch] and other equipment. Then, we check the weather to make sure it is safe for us to dive. Once confirmed, we ride a small boat onto the sea and dive in! We work for five hours or more, diving in and out of the water to scavenge for sea creatures. Then, we come out, hop on the boat back to the island and clean our harvests as well as ourselves. Although our work is not long, it is definitely tiring.

What was your most difficult and enjoyable moment while being a haenyeo?

Most of the activities we do as haenyeos are risky; however, the arduous physical labor is the most demanding. We dive more than 200 times a day, which means a high level of stamina and breathing techniques are necessary. As most haenyeos are old, it gets harder to keep up with what is required for work. On the other hand, the most enjoyable part of being a haenyeo is the satisfying feeling when diving into the water without thinking about anything. Although being a haenyeo is hard, I love my job because it is truly what I want to do.

Were there any accidents that you experienced while working?

The risk of being captured in ocean trash like old nets is a big problem. Big nets are almost invisible when we get in the water. As we only depend on our breath when diving, it is hard to think logically if we suddenly get caught and panic. Not only the nets, but plastic pollution is also an issue. Many times we would find plastic hanging on urchins. To solve this issue, sometimes we dive just to collect plastic from the sea. Although this will not eradicate the problem, we attempt to alleviate ocean waste as our work is directly linked to the sustainability of nature. If nature cannot be protected, we have no work to do.

Have you seen or felt the effects of climate change or rising temperatures while working?

We generally work early mornings when the sea is colder, about 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). However, temperatures recently remain at 17 degrees Celsius which allows sharks to inhabit the warmer waters. This poses a threat while we work in shallow waters. Also, during the summer, I have witnessed underwater plants like algae melting due to extreme heat. Algae is not only our source of income but also food for other marine life. To stop the cycle of nature and our livelihood being destroyed, we need the temperature to drop again.