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The science of Jeju haenyeo
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승인 2012.11.20  14:26:42
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This is Part 1 of a 2-part series. For Part II, please visit the jeju Weekly Website


Jeju Island has distinguished itself in terms of its biodiversity and natural treasures.

The island is also an example of biocultural diversity. Known within Korea for its unique culture, it is often the "muljil" or skillset of the Jeju haenyeo (free-diving women) that gain particular attention. Jeju haenyeo have been the subject of many scientific studies, and their culture can viewed in biological, psychological, sociological, anthropological, and ecological frameworks.

Biological. The biological feats of Jeju haenyeo are well documented. Diving without the aid of oxygen equipment, the women are known for reaching depths of 20m and for holding their breath up to two minutes. This is especially note-worthy as they are a collective, and often dive well into advanced age.

The female dominance of this profession has long been debated. While there were socio-historical considerations for women to have taken over this work from men, it is well established that females are also biologically better suited to diving due to greater cold tolerance resulting from higher body fat content and shivering threshold.

Medical. Repeated diving brings multiple symptoms. Chronic headaches are a common problem for which haenyeo take medication prior to diving. Traditionally, they ingested an herb known as “sumbegi’ for this purpose, which grows along the coast. While such treatments may prevent headache, they are typically anticoagulant and/or dilate the blood vessels, the chronic use of which increases the risk for both cerebrovascular accident (" stroke") and aneurysm. These conditions are thought to be a primary cause of haenyeo drownings.

A syndrome known as “jamsu-byeong” is common among Jeju haenyeo and includes not only the chronic headache but also digestive problems, joint pain, and tinnitus. The Jeju provincial government now sponsors hyperbaric oxygen therapy for haenyeo in which pure oxygen is administered within a sealed chamber that also simulates the pressure change of diving. Ironically, this treatment if taken in excess can cause oxygen toxicity, resulting in central nervous and pulmonary symptoms.

▲ Photos by Brenda Paik Sunoo, author of “Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea”


One of the most common yet least understood threats to the haenyeo is a phenomenon known as “shallow water blackout.” In this circumstance, the diver experiences a loss of consciousness due to cerebral hypoxia because of a malfunction in the brain stem’s normal signaling of the need for respiration.

This life-threatening unconsciousness can result from the common practice of taking repeated deep breaths before diving in order to extend breath-holding capacity — a form of hyperventilating that lowers the body’s carbon dioxide level which otherwise signals the need for oxygen. The diver’s unconscious state causes her to swallow water and asphyxiate, resulting in a “quiet drowning” that initially goes unnoticed by other divers. When a diver dies in this manner, other haenyeo tend to accept her death as a mystery and a reminder of the danger embedded in their profession.

Other medical challenges to Jeju haenyeo, and to all free-divers, include barotrauma or damage to various bodily tissues due to repeated pressure changes; lacerations and abrasions; venomous stinging or biting by sea creatures; and, hypothermia with muscle cramping, loss of strength and diminished consciousness.

Until quite recently, Jeju haenyeo dove without thermal gear regardless of water temperature. To combat hypothermia and permit the divers to extend their length of time in the water, wetsuits were introduced in the 1970s. The tradeoff, however, is that haenyeo must now wear a belt of lead weights to combat the suit’s buoyancy — and contribute to chronic lumbar and hip pain.

One lesser discussed phenomenon of diving is known as nitrogen narcosis, which for the haenyeo who are diving at a maximum of 20m, leads only to mild impairment such as a generalized tranquility that many haenyeo describe as their “addiction to the sea.” However, this altered state of consciousness brings not only mild euphoria but also impaired judgment and reasoning as well as decreased motor skills and manual dexterity, and can cause the haenyeo to misjudge her need for air and distance to the surface, or ability to capture her prey in which case she can become trapped by her own tools.

Psychological. Women are known to have a greater ability than men for multitasking, a critical cognitive skill for this diving profession, which further supports bio-psycho-social grounds for female dominance of this profession.

Jeju haenyeo have commonly been described in terms of both physical and psychological strength. Known for independent, pragmatic, determined, and diligent character traits, they have often been cited as an example of indigenous “eco-feminism“ by mainland scholars. Themes of self-esteem, self-sufficiency, and internal locus of control abound.

Despite this relative independence, Jeju haenyeo culture is particularly collectivist in nature as evidenced by mutual aid, collective economics, shared responsibility, and a bonded community made more cohesive by the use of ritual for rootedness and meaning-making.

“We go to the Otherworld to earn money, and return to this one to save our kids,” according to a haenyeo proverb. This is not said negatively, however, though they are supremely aware of the sea’s dangers; nor is it mere obligation or resignation, though they accept the professional identity and economic necessity. Rather, the sea is depicted as a womb, a place where earthly cares disappear and the mind is free, singularly focused on the catch.

The diving itself would seem to support mental health in the form of mindfulness, purpose, engagement, and connectedness both to nature and in the form of human bonding. Additionally, the shamanistic belief system adopted by the haenyeo community provides a certain indigenous or “folk” psychology in the form of meaning-making, spiritual support, ritual observance of seasonal and life passages, the reassurance of a belief in deity, deep ecology, and the direct support and intervention of the shaman, included as a bonded member of the community.

With expectations of both provincial and national recognition as cultural heritage, there is a strong effort to obtain UNESCO designation for the haenyeo culture. Toward this end, preservation of the Jeju haenyeo tradition as biocultural diversity was presented as Motion #108 at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September and passed into referendum, thereby garnering the support of conservation organizations and governments across the globe.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home.

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