For the entire 52-week account of Dr. Nemeth’s time on Jeju Island as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, you can download his new e-book free of charge. JejuWorldWide would like to thank Dr. Nemeth again for his generous contribution. — Ed.
Above, photographs of Jeju Island haenyeo (women divers) by Douglas MacDonald (Flickr.com/photos/dmacs_photos). — Ed.
For part 1 of Dr. Nemeth’s account of his time on Udo Island in 1973, please click here.
If you look closely at the Udo Island geomancy map below, you will find a representation of the location of a remote, deepwater cove just to the right of the resting cow’s hind leg. The cove is a blowout on the flanks of the cinder cone.
A visitor can hike to observe where the sea has carved into the ancient blowout. On the map, the site is located several hundred yards directly below the hip of the cow. The high cliffs around the cove form a narrow amphitheater and during most daylight hours the surface of the inlet is in the shadow of the cliffs. However, between about 3 p.m. and dusk the afternoon sunlight shining out of the west lights up the blue, crystal-clear sea water there to great depths. The surface waters within this cove are usually still and nearly as serene as a Swiss lake, a Polynesian lagoon, or a Mayan sinkhole. This is because few ocean waves can intrude very far into its sheltered recess. There are no beaches ringing the cove. The cliff walls are nearly vertical. The cove is almost inaccessible except by boat.
If one felt obligated out of curiosity to go by land in order to experience the cove at sea level — and few did in the early 70s, they would encounter a steep and challenging descent to the sea from the brinks of the surrounding lava walls. There were no paths leading down to the cove in the old days. Luck provided my footholds and handholds all along the declines and ascents, and some of these were razor sharp. Whatever the heat of the day, protective long pants, tennis shoes and a pair of gloves constituted essential climbing equipment.
I ventured to the cove for the fifth or sixth time one sweet summer day in 1974. My knapsack contained beer, dried squid, peanuts, a mask, a snorkel and a pair of fins. In my hand I held a lightweight, bamboo spear-gun equipped with a sturdy rubber-band wrist launcher. The spear was tipped with a small jagged metal trident.
It had been my experience up to that point and just about everywhere on Jejudo and on Udo that when locals encountered me approaching them along their beaches they broke into smiles — until they saw that spear gun. Did they think I was dangerous? I never thought the question through until after the near calamity on Udo, in that cove, that I am about to describe.
It was a clear, warm and windless afternoon. I had climbed down the steep cliffs to a familiar narrow ledge about two feet above the waterline within the cove. The tide was rising, so I would not be forfeiting safe access to the ledge during the next few hours I planned to spend in the water.
I could see small colorful fish in the turquoise waters below the ledge. Light blue waters at and near the sunlit surface turned to dark blue waters at greater depths. I assumed there was a bottom down there somewhere, but could never detect one beyond where the midnight blues turned into an ink-block black. I left the ledge and slid into the wet abyss.
I swam about the cove with no particular destination: To and fro. Up and down. Time stood still. My spear was mainly a defensive weapon against what I imagined to be the threat of aggressive, larger, fish. I never had to use it. I had heard or read somewhere that Korean haenyeo — or perhaps it was the ama diving women of Japan — in former times dove naked, and had giant eyes tattooed on their buttocks to scare away predator fish and sharks.
Out of nowhere the loud roar of a diesel engine interrupted the tranquility of my surroundings. I was nearly scared out of my wits to see a medium size fishing boat careening around a steep cliff at the corner of the cove. Its bow was upraised, bouncing as it rapidly bore down on me at full speed. I was at that moment dog-paddling in open water and about 50 yards from the safety of my ledge.
The hurtling craft sped at me. The roar of the engine amplified by the echoing cliffs surrounding the cove was deafening. Black smoke belched from the engine exhausts. I tossed my mask and dropped my spear and swam like hell for the ledge. Every fifth or sixth stroke I spun onto my back to assess those in hot pursuit of me, and calculated of chances to outrace them. I was kicking like crazy but the gap between us narrowed till escape seemed futile. Most certainly I would be swept under the bow, crushed, and then blended into smithereens by a propeller!
I had but seconds left and was into my Hail Marys when the boat suddenly spun sideways and careened to a sudden halt within 10 yards of me. Two or three hollering haenyeo also wearing fins and armed with the pronged tools of their trade leaped from the deck near the bow feet-first into the waves kicked up by the frothing, tossing boat wake. Other haenyeo still on board seemed prepared to do so. Meanwhile I was swallowing salt water, and yet was at the ready to try and fend off their assault with my bare hands. I was outnumbered and drowning. ”What the hell?” I yelled at them as they closed in around me.
A few minutes later I was back on my ledge and all alone with my thoughts. As suddenly as they had appeared into my peaceful world, they had departed it. Some left cursing while others laughed. They had scared me, but their original intention was without a doubt to beat me up. On the verge of doing so they heard me speak English, and once close at hand they could see that I was no Korean. Just another dumb American.
What many did not understand at the time and what I learned the hard way in that cove was that the traditional haenyeo of Jeju and its surrounds were still proud, rugged hunters and gatherers who did not tolerate the intrusions of outsiders and competitors trespassing inside the boundaries of their wet turf, submerged gardens and fish farms. Mental maps of underwater fields and boundaries were indelibly drawn by custom and shared experience inside their haenyeo heads.
Those boundaries of village haenyeo underwater territories were known to and shared by all haenyeo everywhere on Udo and Jejudo, and respected by most. Food and other resources to support haenyeo families were scarce offshore, and increasingly so toward recent times and within those strict boundaries. Conceivably, every offshore underwater inch was claimed early on in history by village haenyeo, then exploited and also policed by them thereafter to prevent poaching by outsiders.
On that unforgettable day trip to Udo I got a good scare for a good reason. I was totally naïve, reckless and disrespectful of the islanders and should not have been treading about in their territorial waters with my diving gear and fishing spear without their permission. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing.
Things have changed dramatically on Udo in the past 40 years. Anything goes these days. Village haenyeo, if they still exist, probably don’t police strangers in their underwater territories anymore because there is not much left worth protecting in the area.
More than one million tourists visit Udo every year these days and they travel to and fro from Jeju Island on speedy car-carrying ferryboats. That just doesn’t seem right to me. If those numbers are correct then the trip to Udo from Jejudo must be something like the trip from Manhattan to Staten Island. Or so I am thinking.