▲ There was a strong sense of camaraderie among the women divers competing at the annual haenyeo competition, held at Gwideok Beach. Photo by Brian Miller.
Though the weather turned rapidly from pleasant to dreary on the morning of April 11, it did not dampen the overall exuberance at the fourth annual haenyeo competition, held at Gwideok beach.
Sixty-two haenyeo from more than 100 Jeju villages battled it out in two categories; a diving competition where crustaceans, sea cucumbers and octopuses were gathered over an hour and a half period and a kayak race.
The festivities began at 11 a.m. with speeches and a performance that was ticketed as a break dance routine but contained more enthusiasm than skilled moves. This did not seem to concern the haenyeo, with many of them, bedecked in black rubber diving suits, joining in without inhibition. They danced solo and in groups, some even dancing on chairs (and almost falling off); making it clear this was not just a competition, but a celebration of their craft.
“This is Jeju traditional culture,” said Yang Hwang Il, founder and host of the event, as the haenyeo tripped the light fantastic behind him. “We have to preserve this culture.”
Yang said that over the last 10 years, the haenyeo population has more than halved from 5,789 in 2000 to the present number of 2,500 and he believes that the decline will continue. However, luring new haenyeo was not the purpose of the competition, he said.
Rather, the impetus was to “encourage Jeju woman divers to work hard” and to preserve and celebrate their contribution to Jeju culture.
▲ Taking part was “Hoju (Australian) haenyeo,” Sherrin Hibbard, the first Western graduate of the haenyeo school. Photo by Tracie Barrett
Lim Baek Yeon, one of three judges, said that as recently as 30 years ago, the haenyeo were responsible for 50 percent of the island’s income. At that time, most of what the women harvested was sold and shipped to Japan, except for octopus which did not travel well.
“Nowadays, the woman divers are decreasing. We didn’t know how precious the divers were,” Lim said.
At 12 p.m., when a signal was given, the divers took to the water and with great speed dispersed about the inlet that is not only home to the haenyeo hakyeo (school), but was also selected as the site for the competition more than a year ago so was put off limits until this day to build up adequate stock.
For an hour and a half, the 62 woman divers, including Sherrin Hibbard, the only foreigner invited to join the competition, dove deep to the ocean bed to search for sea cucumbers, urchins, octopus and other salty treasures as cold rain fell on their handmade taewak (floating baskets) bobbing on the surface of the ocean. Some divers swam far out while others stayed closer to the shore, their black wetsuits like oil spots on the face of the water.
On land the party continued as free bowls of steaming noodles, plates of cooked black pig and bottles of soju were handed out freely. Retired haenyeo sat gossiping at the tables, drinking soju from small paper cups. Spectators meandered about and sampled home-made makgeolli from a booth.
Photographers took to boats and stood atop flatbed pickup trucks to get better shots of the competitors. As the soju and makgeolli flowed freely, more people got up to dance, some pulling strangers in to join them.
After the haenyeo returned to semi-dry land, their catches were counted and weighed.
Oh Youn Soo from Dapyoung village won the first prize of 500,000 won with her haul of 16.8 kg of shells and three sea cucumbers. Kang Soon Ja from Hahyo was second with 15 kg of shells and one octopus, earning 300,000 won, and third prize of 200,000 won went to Ko Bok Im from Kosan, for 13.6kg of shells and one sea cucumber.
▲ Photo by Tracie Barrett
For most haenyeo, this represents a substantial amount of money for an hour and a half of work, and is half their average monthly income, Lim said. That is a core reason, he said, for the decrease in the haenyeo population. Low wages compounded by dangerous work conditions makes the occupation unattractive to most.
“Many girls, many women, don’t want to dive in the sea _ it’s dangerous. It doesn’t make enough money. The income is very, very low,” he said.
Such reasons may dissuade most people, but a group of divers present in black and blue wetsuits were students of the haenyeo school that was established in 2008, and which accepts both male and female divers.
After the sea harvest competition, the haenyeo took to two-person kayaks took for an intense race. This event, Yang said, attracted the largest audience during the event. In total more than 1,000 people attended throughout the day.
The competition changes locale ever year and the next will take place in Seogwipo. Yang hopes to include an event for male divers in next year’s program. “It will be funny,” he said.
A retired haenyeo at the event, who declined to give her name, spoke for many of those present. “I came here to enjoy,” she said. “I came today because a lot of people are coming together. This is a festival for us.”
She smiled and poured her interviewer a cup full of soju, downed her own and went out from under the shelter of the dining tent into the rain to find her friends who had left her talking after they finished their meals.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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