Jeju is famous for its female divers, haenyeo, literally “sea women”. Haenyeo have been harvesting the ocean by hand since the 17th century. The most athletic women you will likely see in Korea, they are a remarkable sisterhood of free-divers who gather conch, sea cucumbers, abalone (sea snails), and sea urchins to sell at market. My motivation for visiting Jeju was to meet some of these extraordinary women to learn their secrets to longevity and happiness.

While driving along the shoreline of the island, we had spotted intriguing circular stone walls every few miles. They are known as bulteok and are the traditional dressing rooms of the haenyeo, who would use them as places to eat, collect and distribute their catch. We also saw the more modern, heated huts that they now use, painted with seascapes and portraits of themselves. Haenyeo spend up to seven hours harvesting during the three months of the season. Wearing wetsuits, flippers and scuba masks and with lead weights around their waists to help them descend, they must plunge to depths of 5–20 metres.

During each dive, they hold their breath for up to two minutes and when resurfacing, they make a unique whistling sound known as sumbisori to expel air from their lungs and let their team know they are returning to the surface and safe. Many haenyeo pray to sea gods before diving, asking for protection – from the sharks, jellyfish and storms – and a good catch. The divers work as a team and a business collective – jeong in action! – sharing their catch equally, supporting each other in illness and sorrow, and celebrating together in joy.

Haenyeo prove that age is no barrier to doing what you love. The majority of them today are in their sixties, but I met some haenyeo in their eighties who told me they won’t stop diving. They are a symbol of resilience like no other.

Korea’s first working mothers

The first records of haenyeo diving for abalone date to 1629, so their understanding of the sea and marine life is, not just generations, but centuries deep. Two missionaries who travelled to Jeju in 1899 were so impressed by the haenyeo that they wrote: “Women of [Jeju] might be called the Amazonians of Korea. They not only do all the work but greatly exceed the men in number; on the streets, one meets three women to one man. This is because so many men are away sailing. The women are more robust and much better looking than their sisters on the mainland.”

The haenyeo began diving because their men were often lost at sea from fishing accidents or at war, and they were left to support their families. Wives took the place of their husbands doing this dangerous work, even diving while pregnant. Later, with men enslaved by the Japanese and Chinese, women again were left alone to feed their families. A haenyeo told me that the male population had now increased on the island, but they were afraid to let men dive. They wanted to protect them because they were too precious.

Training Haenyeo are divided into three groups according to level of experience: hagun, (lowest skilled), junggun (middle skilled) and sanggun (highest skilled). The sanggun, revered for their wisdom, offer guidance to others. Training begins as teenagers, and it takes about seven years to reach proficiency. Haenyeo dive in teams, always watching out for each other. If a diver does not surface in time, the others will stop diving to rescue them. The tragedy of haenyeo dying if they don’t ascend is never far from their minds either. In the last decade, around 55 women have died while diving, the majority over the age of 70.

Role models

Today these iconic women have been designated by the provincial government as representatives of the island’s character and people’s spirit. Jeju’s haenyeo have also contributed much to the advancement of women’s status in the community, as well as promoting environmental sustainability with their eco-friendly methods and management of fishing practices. They respect the marine ecosystem, harvest only in season and take just enough to sustain their community. They explained that because they don’t overfish, the ocean continues to provides all they need and asks for nothing in return.

For me, the haenyeo are such extraordinary examples of sisterhood, beauty, and success. They live by the principles of jeong (we before me), han (grit in the face of difficulty), and heung (joy in nature). I was honoured to meet with some of them, such dignified and powerful women who are not defined by men or society. They have made their own rules. And they rule! No surprise, then, given their extraordinary lives and fearless personalities, that haenyeo have featured as characters in a number of K-dramas and K-movies. My Mother the Mermaid (2004) was about a mother who used to be a diver, while Canola (2016) has a haenyeo grandmother on Jeju dealing with her rebellious grand-daughter from Seoul.

Meet the mermaids

If you want to see the haenyeo in action while visiting Jeju Island, hike up to Sunrise Peak, Seongsan Ilchulbong. Formed more than 5000 years ago, it’s a 182-metre (600-feet) volcano with a forested crater. Every day (at 1.30 pm and 3 pm) you can attend the Women Diver Show, where haenyeo sing traditional songs, dive and then share their catch with those in attendance. After seeing them in person, head to the Haenyeo Museum. It’s a profoundly moving experience to learn about their history, working lives, and extraordinary co-existence with the ocean that continues to this day. The most important issue the haenyeo face now is the disappearance of their culture. In 1965, over 23,000 haenyeo were diving. Today, there are an estimated 3,500. Many of the divers say the tradition may not survive another generation since many of their daughters have decided to take jobs in the city. Their livelihood is at risk from the rising sea levels and the industrialisation of fishing, which makes free-diving for seafood unnecessary. Yet their culture of bravery, independence, and persistence continues to inspire.

Excerpted with permission from The Korean Book of Happiness: Joy, Resilience and the Art of Giving, Barbara J Zitwer, Hachette.