They call themselves haenyo (pronounced hen-yuh), which literally means sea women and the whistling sound they made preceding their exit from the depths is called sumbisori. They are representative of a centuries old tradition, one which transformed their island in to a functioning matriarchy but a way of life which today is in danger of disappearing forever.
The island of Jeju, 53 miles south of mainland Korea, lies at the watery crossroads of the Yellow and East China Seas. Diving for conch, octopus, urchin, and abalone had always taken place there but due to large taxes was never very profitable – something men would take up if there was no alternative. That was until a canny group of women in the 18th century realized that women did not, unlike their men folk, have to pay taxes. A loophole was about to become a living.
The haenyo (sometimes spelled haenyeo) do not use oxygen tanks, which would only weigh them down and make their difficult task even harder. Their black wet suits and goggles are all they need to descend to the sea floor to collect their bounty. The skills they possess serve them well now – and did so too under the Japanese occupation of the Second World War. Many haenyo became heroines of the Korean resistance movement.