HAENYEO WOMEN THROUGH THE EYES OF TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER JOSE JEULAND
ART – TRAVEL – PHOTOGRAPHY. THESE THREE WORDS HAVE THEIR OWN INTERPRETATION OF HOW BEAUTY IS PORTRAYED BUT AMIDST THESE DIFFERENCES, THERE IS SOMETHING IN COMMON HERE – THE IMMERSION AND APPRECIATION OF LIFE.
As a travel photographer, I am always fascinated by different cultures and intrigued by what it means to lead a ‘local life’. As a professional triathlete, I am always motivated to push through boundaries, and to constantly scale new heights in this unconventional and adventurous career path. I constantly try to bring these two passions together and find a delicate balance between them – finding interesting places to photograph when I am attending races and challenging places to train when I am travelling for photo shoots. Someone once told me that life is not always about competition, rather, it is an amalgamation of knowledge, empathy, and appreciation – a way of life, as envisioned by a wise friend of mine.
When I decided to take part in the 50K Jeju Trail Running 2016, I immediately got on my laptop to research the island and was most enthralled by what I saw.
No doubt, the place is gorgeous but it was a group of women who got me intrigued. When I saw photographs of these women they looked awe-inspiring decked out in their wetsuits, I knew I just had to be there. In case you are wondering, I am referring to the Haenyeo divers – Korea’s women of the sea.
During their heyday in the 1960s, more than 30,000 Haenyeo women dived off the shores of Jeju and Udo Island daily. Today, less than 5,000 of these Haenyeo women remain and two-thirds of them are now over the age of 60. With higher levels of education, modern Korean women are looking to the outside world for job opportunities instead of inheriting the traditional roll of their forebears. What I find very interesting about the Haenyeo women is that they dive into the ocean without any special tools to gather clams, abalone, or seaweed. This is what differentiates them from the modern divers you see elsewhere around the world.
Jeju female divers enjoyed freedom, independence, and self-respect and their work is one of the country’s most celebrated traditions. This group of women is so loved by their fellow countrymen that the government requested that they be added to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Immediately I touched down to Jeju Island I approached the Jeju Island tourism counter to find out how I could get in touch with the Haenyeo divers. As a foreigner in a small town without a guide or a translator this request proved to be quite an interesting challenge for me. The locals did not speak English and my knowledge of the Korean language is zilch.
It took me a while to locate the Haenyeo women – getting around the island and keeping my eyes peeled for any signs or trails of these mermaids of the sea. Riding on a scooter with my luggage and trying to navigate around the island with a map turned out to be quite the circus show for most of the villagers.
Almost every village on Jeju has its own group of Haenyeo women and they are strictly restricted to diving within their own village zones. There is a small dive house in each village that serves as a congregation point for these women to change and get ready for dives, store their belongings, or to just relax and take breaks between dives. The women can often be seen chatting in groups inside or around the house. In order to capture intricate moments of the Haenyeo women at work and to better understand this unique profession, I decided to take part in their activities and accompany them on the boat for two dives at Hyeopjae Beach and Seongsan
Port. Seongsan is located near to Korea’s first UNESCO Natural World Heritage site – Seongsan Ilchulbong. Also known as the Sunrise Peak, it the perfect place to watch the sunrise and is touted as one of the must-do activities for tourists to Jeju Island. Before the first light of the day, the Haenyeo women were already at the dive house getting ready for the day’s work. Some arrived on their scooters while others were either dropped off by their husbands or came on foot pushing carts containing their equipment. I arrived at the dive house around 5.30am, slightly earlier than my diving mermaids so that I could capture moments of them preparing for the dive and getting the boat ready to aid them through to a bountiful haul.
Rocking against the menacing roar of the sea as it stretched outward to the horizon, the atmosphere on the boat was, by contrast, quite tranquil. As we arrived at the dive site, the divers started to make final adjustments to their wetsuits and prepared diving masks with a lotion mix of vegetable oil to prevent them from fogging up. I stayed on the surface of the ocean to observe the action in order to get the big picture. Apart from the standard diving gear used, the Haenyeo women also carried a number of tools down with them on each dive. A flat prying tool akin to a heavy dull knife blade, a (bitchang); or a small sickle for cutting seaweed and a (jonggae-homi); a broad bladed knife for removing sea urchins and a small hoe for pulling octopuses and sea cucumbers from crevices in the (gol-gengi) or reef.
Notable for their hospitable nature, the Haenyeo divers offered some of their catch of to me as a token of appreciation. I had the great honour of tasting seafood personally extracted by these fascinating and strong Haenyeo women – the seafood included turban snails, sea urchins, gelidium algae, sea cucumbers, abalone, and undaria seaweed. The seafood tasted exceptionally fresh and the seaweed that was scooped from the surface of the sea was so deliciously fresh and cold.
Jeju divers are highly skilled individuals and a great degree of physical fitness is required of them. Equipped with only a lead-weighted vest and goggles, the divers can free dive up to a depth of 20 meters, and can stay underwater for up to three minutes. Most of the Haenyeo women that I followed on their diving trips were able to stay underwater for over two minutes, though there were a few more skilled divers who stayed down longer. When they resurface for air, their expelled breath makes a high-pitched whistling sound, which is their unique way of breathing out the carbon dioxide and breathing in fresh oxygen.
In addition to looking after their dive kit, to make sure that the dive went as smoothly as possible, the divers would take a pill to help control the headaches that can be brought on by the water pressure and they would also constantly keep a lookout for each other as soon as they hit the water. Danger lurks in every corner of the sea and each dive puts their lives at risk. Strong currents and poor visibility makes the job even more perilous. At the divers advanced age they could easily be washed out to sea or caught up in a riptide and drown.
This trip to Jeju Island made me realise how incredible and resilient humans can be. The adage of health is wealth struck me as I was photographing these Haenyeo women. Standing stoic and peering fearlessly towards the unforgiving ocean, these women are redefining life through their own actions as the beautiful mermaids of Jeju.
In every photograph that I shot, I tried to unfold the realm of the Haenyeo divers. Some of them are presented in monotone to draw you into a deeper sense of emotion – to experience and appreciate these women and their job. It was a satisfying experience for me to witness and document this part of Korean culture. One can find beauty in everything; it is all about how you look at things. This is my take on the Haenyeo Divers – my mermaids.