Click here for Larry’s article from earlier this year. — Ed.
After 16 weeks, this year’s session of the Haenyeo School in Hallim, Jeju City, has come to an end and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to attend the school. Not surprisingly, there was much to learn about the haenyeo (Jeju women divers) culture other than their techniques of freestyle diving. Through this experience, it has become clear the need to preserve the unique culture and history of the Jeju haenyeo for future generations.
As a young boy, a personal childhood hero of mine was Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt,” a television series back in the late 1950s. Lloyd was a diver and I wanted more than anything to be just like him. I loved watching him dive to the bottom of the ocean as he found shipwrecks or sunken treasures.
Here in Jeju, I was fortunate to have found the real thing, the haenyeo, and not just a television show. For me it was a privilege to dive alongside them and learn to search for the treasures of sora and abalone. With the repetition of diving every week, it became easy to learn the technique. My wife, Wanda, who had never been very good at snorkeling, much less holding her breath to freedive, can now hold her breath and dive three meters. She seems to have developed a haenyeo’s eye for finding sora and eventually showed me where to look to find them. She finds a lot of humor in this fact.
I feel compelled to tell anyone considering applying for Haenyeo School that it is a huge commitment. The classes were held every Saturday, rain or shine, for 16 weeks. This can feel like a long time to some. Each week the classroom portion, with lectures on history and culture, generally lasted around two hours. The water sessions, diving with the haenyeo, lasted about the same length of time, for a total of four hours each Saturday. In truth, four hours was usually a minimum amount of time spent at the school.
At the end of all classes some amount of food and drinks was supplied. It was a time for socializing with other students and often makes for a really long day. Food ranged from kimbap and coffee to much larger meals with pork and many side dishes. It was always a family friendly atmosphere and students were encouraged to bring friends and family to enjoy the day and whatever activities might be happening.
Read anything about the haenyeo and one will quickly find out a haenyeo’s skills and lifestyle are a dying art and tradition. It is sad to think future generations may only have the opportunity to learn about them from a museum or history book. Yang Hui Beom, an official with the Korean government, was often in attendance and made it clear to us the government’s desire for the haenyeo tradition to live on. On many occasions students were encouraged to take the steps to become active haenyeo after graduation.
For those wanting to truly experience a rich part of Jeju culture, the Jeju Hansupal Haenyeo School is the place to go. My wife and I couldn’t be happier that we made the commitment to attend this year’s session. We love the ocean and have been fascinated with the haenyeo since we discovered them in our research of Jeju before moving here a year and a half ago. The school experience was great and one that I would highly recommend. It’s one more of the many great things about living in Jeju.