▲ Australian Sherrin Hibbard has learned to dive with Jeju’s Haenyeo, one of the few foreigners to do so.
Australian Sherrin Hibbard is no stranger to the sea. She has spent a great deal of her life on it, having worked as a commercial fisherman for 12 years and having earned a degree in maritime archaeology. But it wasn’t until she came to Jeju four years ago as an English teacher that she learned about the fascinating underwater world of the haenyeo.
“The most interesting thing about the haenyeo is that they go into the sea and make a living from what they can catch. And they only get paid for what they catch from the sea. It’s honest work. Surely, the Jeju haenyeo are something essential for Jeju people,” Hibbard said.
The haenyeo, as visitors to Jeju soon learn, are a unique group of women who dive along the coasts of Jeju, harvesting shellfish and octopus without the use of breathing apparatus. Their underwater skills are legendary, and an important part of Jeju culture.
Hibbard was particularly impressed with their diving method. “One of the skills of the haenyeo is free diving, which is different from scuba diving. I learned about that when I came to Jeju,” she said.
She not only found out about it, the adventurous Aussie wanted to learn how to do it. At the time there was not a free diving school in Jeju, so she took a course in Thailand. Back in Jeju, she used her new-found skill to dive with the haenyeo. Hibbard said she can hold her breath for four and a half minutes and dive to a depth of 32 meters without the aid of oxygen tanks or diving equipment.
“I feel like I am a part of the environment when I am under the waters of Jeju with the haenyeo,” she said.
Their numbers are dwindling, as the divers are aging and few young women want to take on the physically demanding work, but a school for future haenyeo divers hopes to reverse that trend. Hibbard is one of the few foreigners to participate in that school.
Hibbard spends every Saturday at the Han-su-pool Haenyeo School in Hallim, learning the diving techniques of these amazing women. Even though there is a language barrier -- they speak no English, she speaks little Korean -- there is an understanding between these sea-loving women.
“Jeju women divers don’t just go ‘on the sea,’ they go ‘into the sea.’ And it is not something that they can just do for the money,” she said. “You have to have a genuine love for what you are doing to be able to do it over the long term.”
While more than 100 people applied to the haenyeo divers’ school, Hibbard was one of only 40 selected. It’s unlikely she will chuck her teaching job and take to the seas full time, but learning to dive with the haenyeo has given the outspoken, independent Hibbard a closeup look at this watery world that very few “outsiders” every experience. It has given her a profound respect for these women, most of whom are older than her.
“I think the haenyeo deserve a lot of respect. They are the only original women divers in the world and they are very strong and brave women. They are my role model.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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