The Legend of the Haenyeo
2021, Senior, Creative Writing
Once upon a time, a haenyeo1 dived in the sea of Jeju Island.
She dived to live, she surfaced to breathe. She slipped in and out of the sea like a pocket of air, her slippery suit sleek like a sealskin. She swam through the underwater forests, which teemed with fish and abalones and kelp. She sliced and speared and pried with her tools and gathered her catch into her nets. She surfaced as a single air bubble puckered between the ocean’s lips. She cupped her upper lip over her mouth and slowly exhaled. The whistling, dolphin-like sound—sumbisori—pierced the air. The crisp fold between the blue sky and the blue ocean was adorned with the pearls of bobbing haenyeo heads, and a chorus of sumbisori wreathed over the capped waves.
She clambered onto the fishing boat, excited to show her catch, a gray abalone, to Omma2. Omma brought over a knife and cracked the abalone neatly in half. The haenyeo cheered, and she ran her finger along the insides of the shell, which glistened with the greens and blues of the sea she loved.
~ ~ ~
Once upon a time, a haenyeo clung to the island of Jeju.
As summer swelled over the island, the ocean ripened into the rich purple of a plum. Nature and the haenyeo rotated, leaving the sea cucumber to rest during winter and never taking more than they needed. They rowed towards the far end of the island, where the bountiful kelp forests swayed. The little girls training to be haenyeo chattered excitedly about finally being allowed to dive. She smiled and cradled her belly, large and round. She had a good feeling the baby would be a girl, and she imagined what was swimming inside of her swimming next to her.
As summer swung over the island, she birthed her daughter on the fishing boat, water breaking over water, the gasping baby spilling out of her womb.
As summers swirled by, she taught her daughter how to swim and spear, dive and live.
~ ~ ~
Once upon a time, a haenyeo wept over the island of Jeju.
She clung to what she thought she knew: her daughter, her sea, and her island. Her daughter disappeared past the horizon, taking Jeju’s blue waters in search of fortune. The gray sea, drained of its blue beauty, battered against the green, glorious island in vengeance. Tourists flooded in with the tides, barreling over the sea walls and into the village.
She sought and searched and scoured for kelp and octopi and fish to no avail. The cycles of nature had fogged over like her goggles after a deep dive. The sea began to betray the haenyeo. Clamping abalones trapped them underwater, exhaustion slowed their limbs, the gray water clouded their vision, trash riddled their coral, plastic choked their once teeming underwater forests. Slowly, she fished her drowned, loved ones out of the depths and deposited them onto the fishing boats. Their lungs gasped for air long after their souls had left their bodies.
The haenyeo were featured in a museum. The haenyeo were named a UNESCO preservation. And as she limped down to the shore every dawn, she was stopped by tourists with wide eyes and wider camera lenses.
She frowned as she peered around a talkative tourist to gaze at the bleak, barren sea.
She knew people only preserved things that would be lost.
~ ~ ~
Once upon a time, a haenyeo lived in the sea of Jeju Island.
She was a woman, weathered by wind, water, and the weight of her burdens. She was a wonder, watched by the world as she dived to superhuman depths, slipped through frigid seas, always emerging with a whistle on her lips and a catch in her nets.
Once upon a time, because she has slipped into the depths with no one to hoist her up. Once upon a time, because she has been swallowed by the sea she once sowed and reaped from. She is nothing but myth, a pocket of air wandering a gray sea.
Jeju is nothing but myth, a flash of emerald beneath a gray abalone shell.
1 Female divers from the island of Jeju whose livelihoods depend on harvesting sea life.
2 “Mother” in Korean
Chan, Emily. “Invaluable Life Lessons from the 60-Plus ‘Sea Women’ Of South Korea Who Harvest The Ocean by Hand.” British Vogue, British Vogue, 9 June 2020, www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/sea-women-south-korea.
Chisholm Hatfield, Samantha, and Sun-Kee Hong. “Mermaids of South Korea: Haenyeo (Women Divers) Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and Climate Change Impacts.” Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, vol. 8, no. 1, 2019, doi:10.21463/jmic.2019.08.1.01.
“Culture of Jeju Haenyeo (Women Divers).” UNESCO, UNESCO, ich.unesco.org/en/RL/culture-of-jeju-haenyeo-women-divers-01068.
“Honorary Haenyeo.” Patagonia, 3 June 2020, www.patagonia.com/stories/honoraryhaenyeo/story-86484.html.
“Jeju Haenyeo – Jeju Provincial Self-Governing Haenyeo Museum – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/jeju-haenyeo-jeju-provincial-self governing-heanyeo-museum/BwIS-M5it2w0IA?hl=en.
Sang-hun, Choe. “Hardy Divers in Korea Strait, ‘Sea Women’ Are Dwindling.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 Mar. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/world/asia/hardy-divers-in-korea-strait-sea-women-are dwindling.html#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20sea%20women,bum%2C%20a%20Jeju %20government%20official.
“Sea Level Trends – NOAA Tides & Currents.” Tides & Currents, tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/sltrends/sltrends_station.shtml?id=620-033.
“Sinking South Korea – How Critical Is the Situation?” Koreatimes, 14 Oct. 2020, www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/10/371_297491.html.
“The Daily Lives of Jeju Haenyeos – Jeju Provincial Self-Governing Haenyeo Museum – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/QQjJKkMZ.
“The Female Free Divers of Jeju.” Roads & Kingdoms, 30 Apr. 2018, roadsandkingdoms.com/2017/the-female-free-divers-of-jeju/.
UNESCO, director. Culture of Jeju Haenyeo (Women Divers). YouTube, YouTube, 30 Nov. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lk7DQLMKBTE.
The haenyeo, or women divers of Jeju Island, are a matrifocal society that uses their incredible diving abilities to provide for their families and community. However, their culture is predicted to disappear within the next few decades. I noticed a parallel between the disappearance of the haenyeo culture and environmental deterioration. The detrimental effects of carbon emissions, industrialization, and rising sea levels have interfered with the rare and beautiful haenyeo culture by polluting the ocean, killing sea life, and flooding coastal lands. Through this short story, I hope readers realize rising sea levels and global warming can and will deteriorate beautiful and flourishing cultures if we don’t act soon.