Calls of the sea: Haenyeo Sumbisori

Haenyeo
Jeju-do is the largest island situated in the southernmost region of Korea!Jeju Island, which has nature beautiful enough to be on UNESCO's World Natural Heritage List, is visited by many tourists.At the Jeju sea, there is scenery which attracts attention and is every bit as beautiful as scenic views of other coastal areas.People dive there without equipment and catch sea products!The very figures of Haenyeo(meaning,womendivers)!Let's meet Jeju Haenyeo, a unique scene in the world, and listen to their stories.

Haenyeo walking to sea along a road lined with canola (rapeseed) fields.

Jeju Haenyeo
Haenyeo are professional women divers who dive into the sea without any mechanical equipment in order to catch sea products. The sea which is Haenyeo's workplace as well as common fishing ground has been called a 'sea farm'.Because farmland is scare in Jeju due to its volcanic nature, the Jeju people have cultivated the sea like farmland.Jeju Haenyeo make their living by harvesting abalones, conches, sea cucumber, and hijiki from the ocean. They are called Jamsu, Jamnyeo and Jamsu in Jeju. Their lives are an integral part of the history of Jeju. The job they do in the sea is called “Muljil”.When did haenyeo diving begin in Jeju?Given that records of the 6th century AD indicate pearls were sent to the central government as an offering to the king, it is estimated that the haenyeo history is long.We can find records about haenyeo in the literature of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Diving seems to have begun before the period of the Three States (57 BC - 668 AD), judging from the fact that Jeju had a record of contributing pearls to the King. It is believed that fishermen harvested abalones and presented them during Joseon dynasty.Jeju topography written by Lee Gun in 1629 recorded that Haenyeo harvested abalones. The records of Haenyeo are recorded on bibliographic data such as the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, Jiyoungrok written by Lee Ik Tae, and Jonjaejeonseo by We Baek Gue.

Haenyeo going to work at sunrise

Haenyeo on the boat, working at sea

Muljil skill
Muljil skill is acquired by lengthy training and experience. Haenyeo near the ocean learned how to swim and dive in the shallow sea at the age of 8 and became baby Haenyeo at age 15.This skill, considered 'superhuman', is gained from individuals' working experience for long periods of time beneath the sea.They can do the work only if they can control diving time themselves by sensing water pressure and amount of oxygen and estimating the distance to the surface of the water.

Starting to dive at the age of 15, Haenyeo continue to do so into their 70's and 80's.

The methods for haenyeos to carry out muljil are threefold: the gotmuljil which refers to going out to the sea from the shore, the baetmuljil which goes out to the sea by boat and finally the nabar.

Haenyeo indicating the sea 'field' where they will
work for the day

The gotmuljil refers to diving into the fishing area by actually swimming out there from the shore as it would be near the village. The young haenyeos or the senior haenyeos would go into the nearby sea depending on their aptitude.

Batmuljil : refers to going out to the sea from the shore

Haenyeo boarding boat at port to go diving

When haenyeo go diving from a boat, they prepare a brazier in advance for warming their bodies after diving

Haenyeo jumping into sea from boat

Who will go into the sea first?

Haenyeo resting on the Tewak for a short time before diving deep into the sea again.

Sumbisori
Sumbisori is the whistling sound Haenyeo make when they surface. It sounds like a 'Hoowi Hoowi' sound when they inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide created when submerged for 1 ~ 2 minutes. Sumbisori provides fresh air to Haenyeo and enables them to work extended periods of time with only short rest periods needed.Physical conditions such as lung capacity, ability to withstand pressure, and capacity to adjust to cold water are needed. Cool nerves are also necessary when swimming near and encountering big fish. Jeju Haenyeo have extended their skill and wisdom, by learning the effective use of physical strength and knowledge of the ocean from the seniors at the Bulteok.

“Ho-oi,ho-oi”,catching her breath

Knowledge about nature
Knowledge of nature encompasses knowledge of the oceans and tides, wind, harvested things and experience. Haenyeo are able to recognize sea geography, changing tidal currents, and habitats of marine life. They can estimate growing process of seasonal marine life and harvest them accordingly. For example, the best time to harvest agar-agar is different year by year. They don't harvest abalone and conches during spawning season. The Haenyeo's vast experience and accumulated knowledge of the marine ecosystem have been handed down from generation to generation.

Carrying the collected agar . Dripping water connotes the heaviness of the burden.

The sea is almost like a field to the haenyeos. The haenyeos know where a certain rock is and where the conches are and where there are plenty of abalones once they go into the sea. The diving work by haenyeos are carried out in groups and during the spawning season, there is a ban on catching anything. There is also strict regulations as to where certain haenyeos from specific regions can go into which area of the sea.

After the 1980's, before there were any cultivated seaweed, the work to collect and dry the seaweed within the haenyeo society was regarded as the most important job. Jeju's women and all family members went out to the sea and collected the seaweed. They collected mounds and mounds of seaweed during this time.

Drying brown seaweed

Haenyeo's Union
Diving has a strong community spirit. Haenyeo should work in accordance with the regulations and laws, and not dive alone. By doing work together, they can avoid dangerous situations. Solo Haenyeo can't exist.Sea farm, which is the haenyeo workplace, is operated by an Eochongye, Haenyeo cooperative. In Jeju Island, there are about 100 Eochongye, one belonging to each coastal village. They have their own regulations about the boundary of fishing ground, qualifications for catching sea products, and catching methods and periods, which are kept strictly. This is a pledge to preserve and co-exist with the ocean eco-system. This haenyeo community shows a form of 'town meeting'. When they have some problems, they get together and make decisions through free discussion until every member understands and accepts. Haenyeo are divided into three levels: Sang-gun, Jung-gun, and Ha-gun, according to their experience and skills. Haenyeo with special with wisdom and virture are called 'Dae-Sanggun', who lead the community for their safety and harmony.

Haenyeo begin collecting seaweed from April, which is called ‘Miyeokhaegyeong’(start of collecting seaweed after prohibition period).

The Gaettakie (Cleaning of the Fishing Grounds)

The sea is just like another field for the hanyeos. When the hanyeos go into the sea, there are rocks and fishing grounds. They know by heart where there are plentiful number of abalones. The daughters inherit this knowledge from their mothers and eventually become superior hanyeos themselves. The village's fishing grounds are their own property so they carry out the cleaning of the fishing grounds by removing the 'badangpul' (sea grass) which are considered to be weeds. The cleaning of the fishing ground is carried out 2, 3 times a year and is called 'gaettakie'. It is one of the biggest responsibilities given to the members of the Hanyeos' Association.

Seafood collected by haenyeo
The act of catching conches, abalones, sea urchins and octopus is called 'heotmurae'. When they are carrying out 'heotmurae' it does not mean they can catch the sea produce almost immediately. It is most often the case where they can't catch anything. It also refers to any action that is not group based such as the collection of tot or cheoncho. The work that they carry out in the water is dangerous in the sense that they could miscalculate the time that they can hold their breath in the water and die. As such, they have to learn how to calculate accurately almost to the second and become a competent haenyeo. The heotmurae work differs greatly in terms of amount of the collected sea produce depending on the haenyeo's competence and ability even if they worked for the same period of time and in the same place.

Individual diving where they caught conches, abalones, sea slugs, and sea urchins took a break during the summer spawning period.
Other seaweed was collected from April to May. Gamtae (Kind of seaweed, Latin name: Ecklonia cava) is collected from July to August, tot is collected from the last day of February until the end of April. In addition, cheoncho is collected from the middle of March to the end of June, cheongak (sea staghorn) is collected from July to August, abalones and conches are caught from October to June, sea urchins are caught from May to July and finally sea slugs are caught during the winter season.

The catching of sea produce was prohibited depending on their size. Conches which were less than 7cm long were prohibited from being collected and the same applied to obunjagi. Obunjagi which was less than 3.5cm in width was banned from being caught. As for abalones, it was under 10cm in width.

The work with cheoncho and tot were carried out as a group project and sold as a community property. Regardless of the amount completed by an individual, they carried out the work together for a specific period of time, dried it and sold it. After getting rid of all moisture, they left in the storage space and sold it on the sale date in sacks of 30 kilos and 60 kilos.

Family members helping haenyeo prepare agar

Husband holding basket of collected agar as haenyeo wife emerges from sea

Bitchang is an important tool used to pick up abalones from the rock.

Haenyeo weighing collected marine products

Haenyeo storing topshells in sea

Sea urchins were creatures that lived at the bottom of the sea and were feed to a variety of shellfish. It was cut with a small knife and its yellowish eggs were picked out and washed. The 'boraseonggae' (purple sea urchins) was usually captured during the barley season and so was also known as boriseonggae'. The eggs that had been extracted from the sea urchin is called 'eundan'.

An old haenyeo is cleaning green sea urchin, called ‘som’ in Jeju dialect.

Haenyeo delighted by octopus catch

Sea creatures such as the octopus was allowed to be sold on an individual basis so elderly grandmothers took it out to the market to get good or better prices for them. The profit was used as pocket money or to buy more food.

The Value of Haenyeo
Jeju haenyeo don't think of nature as just objects for gathering. They have passed on the ways of co-existing to generations by preserving the natural environment. Therefore, they merit being called advocates of ecology.They are also experts of the ocean as they have accumulated knowledge of the sea and diving skills by adjusting to the marine environment and mastering geographical features of the sea.In addition, they are models of gender equality as they have played an independent role in the society and domestic economy along with men.

Going home
: Haenyeo returning home after diving

Frontyard of haenyeo house : Octopus and floating nets hanging on clothesline in frontyard of haenyeo house

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