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HAENYEO CULTURE WITH KING HAERI

Jeju Island is not only famous for being a vacation spot. It’s also home to Haenyeos, or female divers. We spoke to one of them, King Haeri (36 years old), who shared how she became a diver and what her job is like.

(Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

(Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

Seoulbox: Some people might not know what a Haenyeo is, so could you explain what they do?

KING: What this job is about is diving without breathing equipment and collecting sea creatures.

Seoulbox: When did you first get interested in becoming a Haenyeo?

KING: It wasn’t like I got interested in it or wanted to become a Haenyeo for a long time. It just happened that I started this career.

(Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

Seoulbox: So how did it start? Was anyone from your family or people around you a Haenyeo?

KING: Nothing like that, to be honest. Jeju was the place with the most Haenyeos. But even if you’re not from Jeju, a lot of times you’d have relatives there. But because I was not from Jeju, it wasn’t like someone in my surroundings wanted to be a Haenyeo. When I went to Jeju with a friend of mine, she wanted to go to Haenyeo School but didn’t want to go alone. So, I joined her, and I ended up becoming a Haenyeo and not her.

Seoulbox: How long have you been a Haenyeo?

KING: I’ve been a Haenyeo for six years already.

Seoulbox: What are the biggest difficulties? What are the things you like most about this job?

KING: It’s challenging to stay in the water for 4-5 hours, since you can’t stop in the middle. And to be honest, becoming a Haenyeo is also difficult – not only with the physical training, but the salary in the beginning is not as great. But the good part is that there is no retirement age. There are some Haenyeos in their 70s-90s, and they still keep going. As long as you’re healthy and okay with going into the ocean, you can keep working all you want. So, I’m glad I don’t have any concerns about having to quit a job at a certain point. 

Moreover, you get stressed whenever you might go to work, both from the environment and the society. But I don’t feel any stress being in the sea. And I also like the fact that my work’s result solely depends on me – I earn just as much as I put in.

(Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

Seoulbox: Have you had any accidents during the dives? Or maybe your friends?

KING: There are quite a few accidents throughout the whole year with Haenyeos. Because of the absence of equipment or age, there are some accidents or deaths.

I never thought that the sea could be frightening when I didn’t know anything. So, of course, I had some accidents in the beginning. So, all of us are always carrying phones to be able to call a boat if we get into trouble.

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Seoulbox: What is the Haenyeo community like?

KING: There is a communal culture for Haenyeos. You can’t go in the sea on your own. You have to go with a group of people. And even though we split the salary individually, we always protect each other. Some people are older or just started working, so they can’t go as deep. The people with outstanding skills are the ones who dive deeper. And we get around 50-60 kg of seafood, or even over 100 kg. One person can’t lift that. So usually, we work in groups and have meals altogether. For me, it’s just like a family. 

(Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

Seoulbox: Do you want to add anything about Haenyeo culture or Korean culture?

KING: Usually, people think that Haenyeo is work for older people or only for those who live in Jeju. But we have different people doing this work and not only in Jeju. Now there are quite a few films and dramas about Haenyeos, so it seems like people are interested in this topic. But it is hard working in the water, and even though you can say it in regard to any profession, you don’t make a lot at first being a Haenyeo. So, I want to encourage anyone who wants to pursue this job and tell them that they will need to work hard. 

(Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

For the first year, I only got $3000 – it’s not monthly, it’s for the whole year. I never skipped a day. I went to the sea every day you could go and still only made $3000. And it’s not like I was bad at it. I actually also gave free diving lessons and alike. Even being more confident in the water, it’s still like that. It is a very tough job. Now I do make an above-average wage. It’s not a job for someone mesmerized by the sea or who dreams about working in the water. It’s not that easy, so maybe think about it for a bit before embarking on this journey.

(Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

King gave us great insight into the life of a diver. It’s hard and sometimes scary work, but it is also rewarding. Let’s give a round of applause for her and these brave women! 

To learn more about Haenyeos, we invite you to follow King on Instagram. 

(Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

Author: Irina & Sophia

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