▲ Sherrin Hibbard (also known as the hoju haenyeo), cold, wet, but with a smile on her face after emerging from Jeju’s waters. Photo by Brian Miller
There are many images associated with Jeju Island – oranges, dolhareubang, horses and Mount Halla to name a few –but none are so deeply connected with the culture of the islanders as the haenyeo.
Easily recognizable in their thick black rubber wetsuits, toting buoys and old-style diving masks, such women free-divers have made their living on Jeju for more than a century, but in recent years their numbers have declined. What was once a profession for tens of thousands of woman is rapidly dwindling. Whether that is because of excess commercial fishing, pollution or the everyday work hazards associated with the occupation, it’s a profession that few these days are eager to undertake.
For Sherrin Hibbard, formerly a commercial fisher in her home country of Australia and now teaching at Jeju National University Middle School, becoming aware of the women divers was a revelation that led her to enroll in the haenyeo hakyeo (school) at Gwideok Beach. “I was absolutely fascinated because I used to be a fisherman,” she said, “so to me, other women who made their living from the sea, I wanted to know all about them.”
The sea has always been a part of Hibbard’s life and she recalled that, when she was “a little girl,” her mother would dive for oysters. In addition to her commercial fishing background, she has a degree in underwater archaeology, a master’s degree in interpretative studies, is a qualified boat builder and graduated from a free-diving course in Thailand before starting to learn with the Jeju school. She is also a “born-again” environmentalist, and is planning, with friends and teammates, Hyo Jin and Steve Oberhauser, to swim around Jeju Island this summer to raise awareness about the environment.
“I participated in raping and pillaging the oceans and that’s something I’m not very proud of,” she said. “I’m hoping now that I’m more aware of what’s going on, that I can tell other people about it.”
The event, currently called the Jeju Big Swim 2010 (the team needs about 5 million won to finance the event and is seeking sponsorship), is expected to take about three weeks – “maybe a bit more” – to complete and associated events begin May 15 with a blessing of the fleet at 11 a.m. at Samyang Beach.
“I wanted to do more than just moan and complain,” she said. “I decided I needed to do something constructive to raise awareness about the poor state of our seas.”
It is something Hibbard achieved in a practical manner while studying at the haenyeo hakyeo, when she would harvest garbage from the sea floor in addition to edible items. “The first week I did it, they all laughed at me,” she said. “The second week I did it, they all laughed at me and the third week I did it, they all laughed, but the fourth week, they started asking questions.” By the completion of her course, “everybody would pick up the rubbish.”
“We want to let people know that as individuals, every day we make choices that impact our environment,” Hibbard said. “Every action counts. Many small actions by a lot of people can make a difference.”
Most people might not consider swimming around Jeju to be a small event, but Hibbard and her team hope it will inspire others to do all they can to preserve and rejuvenate our marine environment.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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