Haenyeo: Women of the Sea – A review

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National Maritime Museum

Exhibition: Haenyeo: Women of the Sea, at the National Maritime Museum

5th March – 1st April 2017

Guest post by Kaushal Mitra

“Haenyeo” The female divers in the Korean province of Jeju, as portrayed through life size photos taken by Hyung S Kim and a documentary entitled Breathing Underwater by Ko Hee Young, gives us a fascinating picture of the lives of these unusual women who spend almost their entire life harvesting the rich treasures of the sea bed (shellfish, abalone, sea urchin, octopus and seaweed) for a living.

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A still from the documentary ‘Breathing Underwater’ by Ko Hee Young

What is truly incredible is that they do this without oxygen masks or any sophisticated underwater diving gear, spending 5 to 7 hours in the sea, coming up for air at regular intervals of one to two minutes. They have mastered the art of BREATH control & “BREATH “as we all know is “PRANA “or vital force which is important for physical & mental functions. This knowledge, along with their knowledge of the sea & marine life is passed down to younger generations in families. But, sadly the numbers of Haenyeos are dwindling.

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Jung Kumja, Jeju 2014 by Kim Hyeongsun

The most amazing fact is that most of the Haenyeos are over the age of sixty. Some of them are well into their eighties! There is no retirement age. It is dangerous & life threatening  but these women embrace their fortunes willingly & without complaints. It is as if the sea is their very life itself and mirrors the words of John Masefield in his poem Sea fever:

“The call of the running tide
Is a wild call & a clear call that may not be denied”

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A photo of Kang Oksun, Jeju, 2014 by Kim Hyeongsun

They put their lives at risk everyday that they go diving. Their lives are entwined with the changing faces of the sea throughout the four seasons. Theirs is a special connection. The environment is essentially a reflection of themselves. Man and nature, living side by side, each dependant on the other. The land is arid and is devoid of any cultivation so they look to the sea to fulfil their needs.

To us it seems daunting, dangerous  & dismal but it also reflects the strength, the power the  exhilaration, the beauty & spirit of these incredible women and at the end of their lives their spirit merges with the sea. It is as if the womb that nourished & fed them welcomes them back for

“Quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s is over.”

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