Some of the best adventures in life begin with simple curiosity. Before coming to Korea, my wife, Wanda and I spent hours researching everything possible in order to prepare for life in Jeju. One of the first results of our research was reading about the haenyeo, Jeju’s diving women. We were fascinated by these women who braved the cold waters, hold their breath for two to three minutes, and only used basic gear to provide food and income for their families. As soon as we arrived in Jeju, we hit the beach seeking to catch a glimpse of a haenyeo. This was where our haenyeo experience began.
To be honest, we were a little frightened by them. They did not seem camera friendly or friendly at all for that matter. It was easy to picture a haenyeo grabbing my camera and heaving it into the ocean. So, when taking pictures, I did so from a distance. One day this past winter, my wife told me that she intended to apply to the Haenyeo School in Hallim that would start in the spring. She said she wanted to get closer to the lady divers and this was the best possible option. My first thought was the water is too cold for her. She dislikes cold showers and will hate the freezing cold waters of the ocean. This is not Florida. She will not be able to take it.
Well, I was wrong. It’s now late spring and my wife is in her fifth week of training at Haenyeo School, along with two other foreigner friends. At orientation, she was supplied with a wetsuit, mask, fins and most important — an interpreter. Class is held every Saturday for 16 weeks and involves a classroom lecture and a water session. During class time, the students learn about haenyeo life both past and present. The school feels it is important for the class to understand how difficult life was for these women during the Japanese occupation of Korea. During classes held in the water, instruction and assistance is given by actual haenyeo. They help the students look for and harvest sora, a sea snail.
“The cold water is not so bad with a wetsuit,” says my wife, adding the people in the class are helpful and nice. “It’s great to be so close to actual Jeju women divers.”
Camaraderie among students is an important aspect of the school experience. Students are encouraged to join in sharing food and drinks after all classes. Sometimes the meals are small and sometimes they are large. Last week, in particular, there was a party with a huge meal and noraebang (the Korean version of karaoke). We all know Koreans love singing. It was an enjoyable and entertaining time together and a great chance to get to know fellow students. After weeks of tagging along with my wife, one of the school administrators asked if I would like to join the class. I gladly accepted. I found it humorous that the main concern was having a wetsuit large enough to fit me. Luckily, I had my own.
My curiosity in the haenyeo began before I ever arrived in Jeju and now that I’m here I am more interested than ever before. I have always enjoyed being on and in the ocean and I believe this experience will only deepen my love and appreciation of what Jeju has to offer.
At the end of the course, Larry sent us a second article. Please click here for his wrap-up piece. — Ed.