Feb 09

In November I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the ICOMOS-IFLA ISCCL 2015 Annual Meeting in South Korea.  The Conference title was ‘Re-thinking Lifescape: Linking Landscape to Everyday Life’.  It was held at the Haenyeo Museum and Jeju Stone Park, Jeju Island.  Jeju Island is 64 kilometres off the southern coast of the Korean peninsular mainland it is one of the few large shield volcanoes in the world and is built over a hot spot on a stationary continental crust plate. In 2007, UNESCO inscribed "Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes" onto its list of World Heritage Sites.

Jeju Island, South Korea

I have a slight thing about islands that I think comes from a fascination as a result of exposure to Robert MacArthyur and E.O. Wilson's (1967) book 'The Theory of Island Biogeography'.   Since then it seems that wherever I go I see evidence of the amazing evolution that occurs as a result of some kind of isolation; whether it is non-human species or humans.  On Jeju the adaptation of humans to the difficulty of growing food on this volcanic island has meant an emphasis on the gathering of seafood.  In addition to various types 'ordinary' fishing methods, the traditional Haenyo (women divers) of Jeju, also sometimes called ‘jamnyeo’ or ‘ama’, collect shellfish, particularly abalone and seaweed.  In a fascinating study from 1967 Hong & Rabn suggest that the tradition for gathering the food riches from the ocean floor on the Korean and Japanese coast can be traced back for 1500 years.    In the mid-17th century both men and women gathered seafood and were referred to as ‘haein’ or ‘person of the sea’.  For various reasons it then became women’s work only.  Apparently sometimes the women dive to 20 metres and hold their breath for up to two minutes (Kang-hyun, 2014).   A key issue is the temperature drop experienced by the body in diving.  The bulteok is traditionally an open air stone structure on the coast.  It has a fireplace used by the Haenyeo on Jeju as a warming hut, but also a community space where clothes are changed and other work and social activities are carried out (Byn et al., 2015).  Around these gathering areas, the beaches are littered with abalone shells and other evidence of this tradition.  This community would seem to me to be a pertinent example of a connected community based on hydrocitizenship.

Representation of Haenyeo in traditional diving dress

The Haenyeo have become a powerful symbol of women’s identity in Jeju and their way of life is now recognised and celebrated through the Haenyeo Museum on the Island and through the recognition given by the tentative inscription of the ‘culture of Jeju Haenyeo (women divers) (01068)’ on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list ‘in urgent need of safeguarding’. At the museum the lives, songs, traditions and relationship between women and the sea are celebrated and memorialised.  Theirs is an extraordinary story of endurance, perseverance and unusual gender role-reversal.  The intangible heritage is particularly interesting.  There are numerous stories and legends as well as songs relating to the way of life and the relationship of the women to the sea. According to the museum literature, the songs that the Haenyeo sing are identified as ‘Provincial Intangible Cultural Property No. 1’.  Songs relate to the species gathered – such as the myelochi hurineunsori songs which are sung when anchovies are being caught. Female shamans are consulted about the nature and quality of the likely catch.  Ritualistic dances are performed, such as the Jamsugut and Yowanggut to ensure safety as well as abundance of catch.   This is a community-based activity.  No diver ever works alone and there is a strong divers’ union that regulates activities including the boundaries of search, the type of catch, the methods of gathering and the seasonality for harvesting. 


Many traditional women divers wear only a loin cloth because of the danger of snagging on rocks.  The original clothes worn in Jeju for diving were made of cotton and must have provided no protection against the freezing cold sea. Now women wear diving suits, flippers and masks, but still do not use any breathing apparatus. The breathing technique they use is called sumbisori (trans. ‘breath-sound’ or ‘overcoming’) where carbon dioxide is exhaled rapidly and oxygen rapidly inhaled.  Hong & Rahn (1967) suggest that during hyperventilation prior to diving the women get rid of as much carbon dioxide from the blood as possible.  Natalia Molchanova, revered as the world’s ‘greatest free diver’ and a fierce athlete who disappeared off the coast of Spain in August 2015, held the record for breath-holding at nine minutes and two seconds (Wilkinson, 2015).  Her preparation for diving involved a kind of meditation and then a kind of free-fall technique within the water to conserve oxygen. While her preparation seemed to be entirely individual, the Haenyeo rely on community support and regulation. 

A number of papers and articles report the strange noise that the Korean and Japanese women divers emit when resurfacing due to the expansion of the lungs and a rapid inhalation.  This is a whistling sound which can be heard for long distances.  This is described by Mikhail Karikis (2015) as ‘a high-pitch sound that resembled something between a whale signal and a bird-cry’ that is at once ‘alarming and joyous’.   ‘The ama say it makes them "feel better" and "protects the lungs’; but it also is a communication tool’. Young divers start practising very young (around 7 or 8 years old) and are properly diving by the age of 15-18 they are considered ‘excellent’ by about the age of 35.  This is arduous work, not for the faint-hearted.  Intimate knowledge of the sea, the landscape of the underwater and trust in one’s peers must be critical for survival.  As with many traditional activities, the Haenyeo are now mostly elderly and there are few younger women prepared to take on this kind of work.  Karikis interprets the sumbisori whistle as a ‘complex cultural sound-object’ or a product of a ‘women’s subculture operating within a specific political, geographical and historical specificity’.  He explains it also as an individually identifiable acoustic tool to indicate a diver’s location which can be visually difficult in the marine environment.  Although I haven’t heard the sounds these descriptions remind me of the sounds that whales (that I have heard) and other cetaceans make as a means of communication and identification in a difficult watery environment. Some of the Haenyeo sounds are represented in Karikis’ (2012) SeaWomen, Wapping Project London, installation documentation.


Haenyeo on Jeju                                             Haenyeo Museum Guide

The Haenyeo are often referred to as the ‘Korean Mermaids’.  The links between diving women around the world and the mermaid myth is explored by Bond & Sufflield (2012).  Their thesis is that sightings of mermaids were actually sightings of real diving women and such divers can be found in many coastal areas around the world, but particularly in South Asia.  Many mermaid myths do not indicate a fish tail, but are based on women with legs.  In ‘the diving-woman of Oiso Bay’, a Japanese tale reminiscent of Hans Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’, a young (and ‘lowly’) diving girl refuses to marry an upper class samuri because of the differences in their social station.  The ama here is portrayed as noble, gallant and brave in herself and in her work.  The selchies are mythological half-woman, half-seal creatures in Scottish, Irish and Faroese folklore traditions which similarly have been thought to have a perfectly reasonable explanation.  Early Scottish settlers encountered Inuit, Finnish and Sami people who commonly wore animal skins and used skin-kayaks which would need to be dried out on the rocks.  They peeled off their skin garments and left them to dry on rocks leading to a possible belief that they were shape-changers - from seal to human.

It would be interesting to find other examples of 'connected' communities with such a close interaction between humans and water.  This particular example of the Haenyeo is fascinating to me because of the gendered nature of the tradition and that it relies on total immersion and an understanding of the underwater that I cannot imagine being passed on in any way except through direct experience, by oral tradition and over many years. It also very much adds to the dimensions of our immersive relationships that Musard et al. (2014) begin to explore in ideas of ‘underwater seascapes’ but with the additional critical understanding that immersive landscapes can also be important cultural landscapes.   I think this idea provides all sorts of interesting research possibilities for examining things like place attachment and sensory perception  as well as arts-based interpretations (see for example Lee & Diedrich, 2015)  of the intersections between natural processes and cultural understandings and local knowledge of and in the underwater. 

   Water Fountain on Jeju Island


Bond, W., and Sufflield, P. (2012) The Origins of the Mermaid Myth. Extract available at: http://www.womanthouartgod.com/mermaids.php

Byun, K., Kang, E-J, Yoo, C. and Kim, K-H. (2015) ‘Spatial Transformation and Functions of Bulteok as Space for Haenyeo on Jeju Island’, Korea Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 14(3):533-540.

Gordon Smith, R. (1918) ‘The diving-woman of Oiso Bay’, Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan. Available at: www.sacred-texts.com [accessed 24.01.16].

Hong, S.K. and Rabn, H. (1967) ‘The Diving Women of Korea and Japan’, Scientific American 34-42

Kang-hyun, J. (2014) ‘A sad history behind, Jeju Women prove their fortitude through diving’, Koreana: Journal of the Korean Foundation, Special Issue: Haenyeo: Iconic Female Divers of Jeju. Available at: http://issuu.com/the_korea_foundation/docs/koreana_summer_2014__english__215792b9ea6138 [accessed 08.02.16].

Karikis, M. (2015) Artist's Statement: The vanishing community of haenyeo all-women sea workers on a Pacific island. Available at: http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/photography-and-film/art540967-mikhail-seawomen-pacific-earsthetic-brighton-dome  [accessed 21.01.16].

Karikis, Mikhail (2012) SeaWomen, Wapping Project London, installation documentation Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjzdqUzmp04 [accessed 08.02.16]

Lee, G. and Diedrich, L. (2015) ‘Rocksect Profiling Site Processed through Translation of Deep Fieldwork in the Fluid Margins of Land/Water’, Nordic Design Research: Design Ecologies, No 6. Stockholm. ISSN 1604-9705. Available at: http://www.nordes.org/opj/index.php/n13/issue/view/11 [accessed 08.02.16]

MacArthur, R.H. and Wilson, E.O (1967) The Theory of Island Biogeography (Princeton University Press).

Musard, O., Le Dû-Blayo, L, Francour, P., Beurier, J-P, Feunteun, E., and Talassinos, L (eds) Underwater Seascapes, From geographical to ecological perspectives. Hedelberg, Springer. doi 10.1007/978-3-319-03440-9

Sang-Hun, C. (2014) hardy Divers in Korea Strait, ‘Sea Women’ are dwindling, The New York Times, March 29. Available at: http://nyti.ms/1mgX19B [accessed 24.01.16]

SUN-AE II (2012) ‘Why do Korean Women Dive? A Discussion from the Viewpoint of Gender’ (Special Issue Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries: Moving the Agenda Forward), Asian Fisheries Science 25S:47-58. ISSN 0116-6514.

Wilkinson, A. (2015) ‘The disappearance of the World’s greatest free diver’, New Yorker, August 8. Available at:    [accessed 24.01.16].


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