Cheju Island and the Diving Women

The women divers of Cheju Island (lanz/flickr)

Cheju Island is a Korean resort destination known traditionally for its remarkable women divers, who harvest seaweed and shellfish with little more than a knife and no breathing apparatis. This practice has spread throughout coastal Korea and Japan and in those areas, me have tended to stay home to raise the children while the women worked.

Located 56 miles south of the peninsula, Cheju-do (do means island in Korean) is the largest and most famous of Korea's more than 3,000 islands. Shaped roughly like an egg, Cheju-do is 44 miles long and 25 miles wide and has a permanent population of 500,000. The island's mild climate, scenic beaches, waterfalls, and volcanic rock formations have all become enduring attractions. In recent years, Cheju-do has become a popular resort area for both domestic and foreign tourists, especially for Korean honeymooners. Through most of the year, the weather on this windy island is sunny and warm, although winter temperatures average in the upper 30s. From June to September, Cheju-do, like the mainland's southern coast, experiences a summer monsoon.

Mount Halla is Cheju-do's principal volcanic peak as well as South Korea's highest mountain. Although the volcano, which has a crater lake at its 6,400-foot summit, has not been active since the year 1007, it has formed large lava tunnels and caverns.

Another attraction of the island is the haenyo (pronounced HAIN-yo), the women who dive year-round for shellfish and edible seaweed off the shores. The seabeds of southern Korea and southern Japan have been harvested by divers for over 1,500 years, but it is believed that the practice originated in Cheju-do. Women have dominated this profession because they are physically better suited for it than men; women possess a higher percentage of subcutaneous fat, which insulates them from cold, allowing a longer stay in the water.*

Thus, it has long been customary for Cheju-do's men to mind the children at home while the women work, culling shellfish, seaweed, and sea urchins from the seabed, on which many of the island's inhabitants depend for subsistence and livelihood. Ranging in age from 10 to 60, these women divers can plunge as deep as 45 to 60 feet and stay underwater for as long as three to five minutes without the aid of breathing equipment. The average dive, however, lasts about 30 seconds at a depth of 15 or 20 feet.

Sogwip'o, a small town on Cheju-do's southern coast, has become Korea's citrus capital, producing oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit as well as pineapples for domestic and foreign markets. Cheju-do is also the country's most important livestock region. Many of Korea's cattle and over 65 percent of its 25,000 horses are reared on the island. Cheju-do first became a stockraising area when it was conquered in 1273 by the Mongols, who had also subjugated the mainland's Koryo Kingdom (918-1392). The Mongols used the island's lush meadows to raise horses for warfare and cattle for food, leaving both behind when they were expelled from Korea about a century later.

Cheju-do first came under central government control during the Koryo Kingdom (938) and was then given its current name: "Cheju" means "the district over there," and "do" means "island." For centuries, the Korean court banished criminals and out-of-favor government officials to Cheju-do. Up until around the year 1000, however, the island remained relatively isolated and uninfluenced by the mainland. One of the most notable cultural differences remaining between Cheju-do and the rest of the country is that some villagers on the island still practice shamanism. Also, a very different dialect of Korean is spoken in Cheju-do even today as a direct result of the Mongols' influence. Due to the Korean government's development efforts in recent years, Cheju-do's tourist industry and economic importance to the nation have increased dramatically.

*As documented in the article, "The Diving Women of Korea and Japan," by Suk Ki Hong and Hermann Rahn, in the May 1967 issue of Scientific American, p. 43.

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