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South Korea: Return of the mermaids

A new generation of female divers is reviving a dying fishing tradition on Jeju Island

South Korea: Return of the mermaids
Jeju's 'sea women'. Image: Mark Chilvers

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Their whistles are eerie; otherworldly.

From my perch on the black, wave-splattered rocks of the volcanic beach, they seem to be coming from every direction. Shrill echoes reminiscent of marine mammals. But these strange high-pitched wails are human. And they’re getting closer.

This is remote Jeju Island, 105 miles off the southern coast of South Korea. And the sharp whistles announce the arrival of a team of haenyeo — the island’s legendary ‘sea women’.

Variously described as everything from ‘the last mermaids’ to ‘the Amazons of Asia’, haenyeo have been farming these waters for over 400 years. Plunging to depths of up to 65ft on one breath, they expertly harvest everything from shellfish and seaweed to abalone and — most valuable of all — conch shells. Then, returning to the surface, they emit the sumbisori — a whistling sound created by the rapid expulsion of carbon dioxide and intake of oxygen — before diving again.

As this particular ‘pod’ emerges from the waves, each of the 10 dripping sea sirens hoists a net bulging with underwater spoils. Moving easily under the heavy loads (and disguised beneath hooded wetsuits and snorkelling masks), it’s easy to assume these are women in the prime of their lives. As they pull up their masks to greet me, however, it becomes apparent they’re somewhat older.

A short time later, I’m sitting cross-legged with the haenyeo inside their bulteok. Roughly translated as ‘warm place’, it’s a simple stone changing room-cum-dining room-cum-common room, a few feet from the beach. Thick, frequently darned wetsuits hang like rubber curtains around us as one of the women proudly lists her great-grandchildren, while another describes diving during the war, and how friendly the US sailors were. Despite their abundant energy and obvious fitness, many of these eel-like fisherwomen are well into their 70s and 80s. As they talk, each uses her hands to mime what they’re saying — perhaps to help our translator, perhaps out of habit.

“As soon as we’re in the water, we’re young and strong again,” says 87-year-old Hyun Sun-jik. “Beneath the waves, we’re real mermaids.” The others nod in happy approval — most of them with thick, black heads of hair to go with their sparkling eyes and childlike energy. There isn’t a single walking stick in sight.

Until recently, the future wasn’t looking bright for the haenyeo. With numbers dropping at alarming rates as younger women left for the mainland in their droves, the South Korean government stepped in to help establish two state-of-the-art haenyeo training schools on the island. Then, last month, the haenyeo became officially UNESCO-listed, as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Their resurgence is a cause for celebration, not just here in the tiny bulteok, but also a few miles around the coast, at the impressive Hansupul Haenyeo School, one of the two new facilities. As I arrive, a class has just finished and a cluster of trainees in their 20s are breaking open a pile of sea urchins they’ve caught. One of them — 26-year-old Lee Hyun-kyeng — insists I join them, pushing a finger of urchin innards into my unsuspecting mouth.

“The training is tough, but it’s about more than just a job,” she says. “I believe it’s important for young people to get involved; to keep our old traditions alive. Our parents’ generation didn’t. Now it is up to us to take over those traditions from our grandmothers.”

A generation of eager new recruits, government funding and official UNESCO recognition. It appears the tide has now turned for the ‘real mermaids’ of Jeju Island.

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