The current Wikipedia article titled “Haenyeo” begins with “Until the 19th century, diving [on Jeju Island] was mostly done by men.” That’s news to me but perhaps true. I suggest that some Jeju World Wide readers with expertise on this topic either quickly provide the Wiki with a credible citation in support of this iconoclastic truth claim, or, request that it be removed from the Wiki article at once as unconfirmed patriarchal hogwash.
Not that islander menfolk in other parts of the world in times past did not freedive in dangerous deep waters for economic gain. Male Persian and Polynesian pearl divers come immediately to my mind as examples. Quite a few Hollywood movies featuring male pearl divers in the South Pacific have been made over the decades, though none recently. In these classic movies the pearl divers often dove down too close to giant clams camouflaged below and in a few I have seen they were suddenly clamped upon and devoured whole. Short of that the unfortunate divers simply drowned when the clams got ahold of one or both of their feet. It was hard to watch without spilling my popcorn.
I myself was a male diver twice over. In the first instance I was a springboard diver during my high school years. My friend Mike was also a springboard diver. Mike resembled Elvis Presley and this was about the time that “Hound Dog” (1956) was released and thus launched The King’s long reign. Needless to say, Mike was a chick-magnet. We two palled around together throughout Southern California for several years
This brings me to the second instance: On weekends during the summers of 1957 and 1958 we would take the big S.S. Catalina passenger ferry from San Pedro to Santa Catalina Island to earn money diving for coin. Here is a postcard photo of that famous ship:
Did I mention that Mike was a chick magnet?
About 90 percent of the passengers on the S.S. Catalina were old timers who were headed to the island in order to get away from carefree teenagers like Mike and me and bored high school girls looking for excitement. Imagine their delight to be on a ship in the presence of an Elvis Presley look-alike and headed for a weekend island paradise! And what stories these girls would have liked to tell back home! Too bad Mike and I were going to the island for work and not play.
As for the old folk sitting around us, they could only wish they were young and restless again, and could look like Elvis, and we could feel the heat of their jealousies and feeble stink-eyes boring into the backs of our heads:
Diving for coin might qualify as “work and no play” to some people averse to ocean swimming. However, any work involved came naturally and was even fun for Mike and I as springboard divers on a high school swim team. We just had no time for girls on our working weekends. We could earn several hundred bucks on a good weekend. I was in the Saracens high school car club and had an automobile to support:
Mike claimed at the time to need date money (although for all I could tell his girlfriends — and especially the cougars — were happy to pick up all the bills just to be seen in his company). I don’t know what his did with all this share of money we earned diving for coin. He didn’t even own a car. His girlfriends drove him everywhere.
Diving for coin where the big cruise ships dock around the world is just what it sounds like. I think the custom was invented or popularized in Honolulu, Hawai’i. It is well remembered in Honolulu circa 1946 how the town folk would occasionally take a break to wander down to the pier beneath the Aloha Tower to watch the big cruise ships come in. They would greet the tourists as they disembarked, and listen to the brass band playing there. Meanwhile young swimmers gathered there, mostly boys and men, to tread water beneath the high rails of the ship’s deck and gangplanks to catch coins tossed into the water by the passengers.
It was pretty much the same experience for Mike and I in Avalon Bay alongside the dock when the Catalina or her sister ship arrived and departed several times daily during an average weekend. We would swim out to the deep water near the bow of the ship and it would rain coin.
It was far better earnings for divers on Catalina than in Honolulu because a lot of the coins were silver dollars. There was a famous casino near the boat dock and the slots took silver dollars at that time. The passengers had tons of them. We would catch the coins except for the pennies and sometimes the nickels while treading water. Since it was pouring coins we missed a lot and tried to catch these escapees as they spun beneath the surface on their way to the seabed forty feet below. Down there some rich fellas with aqualungs waited and made a real haul. Forty feet was a bit deep for Mike and me, so we let the quarters and Franklin half-dollars pass by and focused our attention on the silver dollars as they shimmered in the sun and spun in and out of our clutches and downwards under the force of gravity. In sum, we were technically swimming for coin but spent a lot of our strength diving after those many we failed to catch at the surface.
In truth it was exhausting work, though exhilarating from successful moment to successful moment during the daytime action. The more successful we were the harder it was to keep afloat and maneuver about due to the weight of our catch. We had a special belts and pouches to carry our coins, but had to retreat to shore and hotel room often to unburden ourselves. Also, in the water the fight for space between divers was constant and occasionally brutal. It was hard to stay afloat, catch coin and protect territory all at the same time. Bloody noses were common and thank god sharks were not about in the bay.
Mike saved my life once when a mean-spirited passenger sailed a silver dollar hard right into my head. I passed out and Elvis swam me to shore to recover. I still have a bump of scar tissue up there as a reminder of that close call and our warm friendship. I fondly recall how we ended our day with our last long swim to shore near sunset. A warm breeze would inevitably be blowing in from the mainland. We would grab a pizza and retreat dog-tired beneath the stars to our rented room. We would split up the day’s haul fifty-fifty. We would click on the radio and click off the light. One night I remember that the Five Satins were singing “In the Still of the Night” and the weather was especially balmy and the last thing I heard before dropping off to sleep was the joyous crowd downhill at the casino whooping it up.
In sum: Diving for coin In Avalon Bay, Catalina Island, was good exercise and great fun back in the day. I hear the S.S. Catalina eventually wore out and ended up half sunk off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, where it became the residence of a big colony of seals. The very latest word I got is that its remnants were finally cut up with blowtorches for scrap and sent to China for recycling. So it goes. And Mike? He became a springboard diving champ at Brigham Young University in the 60’s. By that time we had lost contact with each other. Word is he (unsurprisingly) married into money, became a Mormon, but then passed away about a decade or so ago. Now I’m an old-timer and there are more casinos around than ever — but those big, heavy silver dollars disappeared a long time ago.
Now that the big cruise ships are beginning to tie up and disgorge tourists at Jeju City I’d be surprised if diving for coin hasn’t already caught on there among the island youth and expatriate community. It’s a global tradition.