For the past 76 years, she has been diving off the coast of saekdal-ri in seogwipo. Jeju’s oldest haenyeo, or “sea woman,” Koh in-o still dives into the sea to gather seafood. the resilience and courage of the island’s iconic female divers can be witnessed in the three generations of her family, who all have been diving their entire lives.
Black flippers and round tewak floats bob about on the sea. From afar, they look like Buddhist prayer beads under the intense southern sunshine. After a while, a group of haenyeo emerges from the water. Their net baskets are filled with horned turbans, sea cucumbers, and seaweed. But then, much later, like the last player off the field, she appears in her black wetsuit. With a net of seaweed slung over her shoulder, she stands tall and strong as she walks. She lifts up her diving mask and her face appears. It is impossible to guess her age from her vigorous appearance — this is Koh In-o, who is 91 this year. She has been diving in the waters off Saekdal-ri, Seogwipo for 76 years and is the oldest working woman on Jeju Island. “I was out collecting seaweed. It took me a while to swim all the way back from that big rock over there. I was diving so far out that you can’t see the spot from here,” she says.
Daughter of the Sea Goddess
Without pausing for a moment’s rest, she takes out the seaweed, piece by piece, and spreads it out on the rocks. Before long, the basalt rocks become a natural drying rack. “Sea mustard that is soft and tender tastes the best.” She speaks in clipped phrases, while her well-worn hands shine in the sunlight. The seaweed will dry quickly in the clean ocean air and sun, and will then be prepared for sale. “The sea is good, but it has become harder to find things. There are fewer octopus and abalone now.”
Koh may not harvest as much as she did in her prime, but the sea remains her life. She has spent her youth here, and she still entrusts her old body to the waves. Jungmun is Jeju’s leading tourist resort; she lives here in Saekdal-ri village, home of her ancestors for generations, embraced by the sea. The motorbikes that the divers rode to the coast are lined up alongside bright yellow canola flowers. Atop the cliffs lining the shore, all sorts of trees grow in the salty air, twisted and bent by the sea winds, struggling to hold their small bodies upright. Koh’s colleagues, in their sixties and seventies, can only cluck their tongues in amazement at her skill. How could she still be doing this if she were not blessed with two lives?
“There are no words to describe this old lady. No one can keep up with her. She heads out before everyone else and lifts even heavy loads with ease. We just follow along behind her. There is no other Sea Mother like her in the country,” they say.
Koh can harvest double what the younger divers bring in. And in terms of diving ability, of course, no one can surpass her. Her fellow divers call her the “Daughter of the Sea Goddess.” She knows the ocean floor like the back of her hand. Even when the sun does not come out, that is not enough to keep her out of the water. But there are days when the wind blows so fiercely it is unsafe for diving.
Save your breath!
After finishing her four-hour morning dive, Koh eats a piece of bread, saying, “This is lunch.” She says she has yet to experience any serious danger in the ocean. Is this because she learned the secrets of the sea from early on? No. It is because she doesn’t let her greed get the better of her. On her days off she naps all day; you need to rest up when there’s time.
For Koh, diving is just an ordinary everyday job. She just does it. She harvests anything she sees. “If an octopus darts back into the rocks the moment I move in with my hoe, I can’t catch it. If I’m lucky, it might come out again when I go back the next day. I’ve gathered abalone bigger than the palm of my hand about 10 meters underwater,” she says. Koh used to be skilled at catching fish in fresh water, too, although she no longer does so because of her age. In her younger days, her skill with a harpoon was legendary. Her hearing is still sharp and her voice loud and clear; perhaps this “ordinariness” is the secret to her extraordinary health. There is also the food she eats: “I only eat the fresh food that I catch, so of course I am healthy.”
She dives on the edge of life and death as she holds her breath underwater. “You can only dive as long as you have breath, you can’t go beyond that. You need to save your breath. If you get greedy, you fail. When the ocean is rough, you shouldn’t go in. And you shouldn’t hold your breath longer than two minutes,” Koh says.
And yet, her body is not what it used to be. It is older now, and this veteran captain of the haenyeo feels her breath growing shorter. She always tells the other divers: “Don’t use all your breath before coming back up. Even if you see abalone or octopus everywhere, come back up for breath first, then go back down and gather them. Thirty seconds can mean life or death.” Though they lose their lives this way in other areas, such an accident has never happened among the divers of Saekdal-ri. “If you go out to harvest alone, you end up going quite far away. Not even the person next to you can keep an eye on you,” Koh says. This is why these women are always skirting danger.
The Sea was Her entire life
This matriarch haenyeo, on rare occasion, dives as deep as 20 meters below the surface without an air tank. She holds her breath for about two minutes. “When I go down it feels like scaling a cliff,” she says. “Even at 17 meters I feel like I am running out of breath. Like I am going to die! It’s not like breathing out of the water. The secret to holding your breath is the most important thing.” When her air is spent, she returns to the surface and gives out a tortured gasp. Then comes the deep, whistling sound. The fact that she was holding it back makes the sound more plaintive. The sight of the sky when emerging from the water — that is the most wonderful moment. This may be the allure that keeps calling her back to the sea.
When Koh was 15 and afraid of the waves, her mother would hold her head under the water every day to teach her: “You have to dive to make a living. Don’t be afraid of diving.” Her mother taught her the trick to holding her breath and letting it out again. Her innately healthy body and large lung capacity proved invaluable. She entrusted her body to a single float and began to roam about the underwater world as if it were her home. The women of Jeju, born by the sea, all learned diving this way, as if it were their destiny. Why else would they say, “Haenyeo give birth and are back in the water three days later”? Every day is lived breathlessly. Why else would they say, “Haenyeo live with their coffins on their backs”?
Koh is the tallest of all the divers in her village. She was tall as a child as well. “When I walked by, people would say, ‘Look at that big diving girl!’ I’ve always been healthy. My mother did not live long. She died around the age of 75. I thought I would die at that age, too, but I am still alive,” she says.
She used to use “small eyes” (goggles) but now she has a “big eye” (diving mask) that allows her to see more at a glance. She draws some mugwort from her ears. She says it prevents water from getting in your ear. You also have to wipe the big eye with mugwort to prevent it from steaming up. She wears a rubber wetsuit now, but in her youth she used to dive in her underwear. She wore only a light cotton shirt and her underpants. She strapped heavy lumps of lead to her waist and carried her equipment: float, net basket, knife, hoe, and bamboo harpoon. On cold and windy
days, her body would turn red and shiver when she came up out of the water. She could not endure it for long. She would immediately head to the shelter on the hills to build a fire and warm her body. But these shelters of haenyeo have disappeared due to the construction of breakwaters. “Now we’re supplied with these rubber diving outfits, which make things easy. It’s great,” Koh beams.
From long ago, some women of Jeju Island dove in waters as far away as Japan, China, and even Vladivostok of the Russian Far East. Koh never went to dive in another country. But she did roam the seas off the mainland in places like Guryongpo and Gampo. “When I come to the sea I feel refreshed, and when I go into the water I can earn money. Anyone who learns to dive will benefit from it.” With the money she earned from diving she bought a house and fields. This is her reward.
Diving for a Livelihood and a Long Life
Koh married at the age of 17. When she was 23, the year she gave birth to a daughter, her husband died in war. She wanted to die as well. After trials and tribulations, she eventually remarried. During the Jeju Uprising of 1948-1949, her husband was a police officer so her family was spared from the violence. She taught her teenage daughters, who were afraid of the water, how to dive. Just like her mother had taught her. “You need to learn this to earn money and live long and healthy lives. You will be able to send your children to school, too. If you don’t learn this, you won’t be able to do anything. So learn to dive, I said. Learn to dive!”
Koh’s eldest daughter, Kang In-ja, 73, has no time to rest between diving and growing mandarins. She was a skilled diver, but when she married into a family with a mandarin farm, she relied more on farming than diving. Koh’s youngest daughter, Kang Myeong-seon, 62, is the head of the fishing village cooperative of Saekdal-ri. Her daughter-in-law is also a veteran diver with 36 years of experience. Koh is pleased to dive with her daughters and daughter-in-law, who are carrying on her family tradition. She is even more pleased when they bring up a big catch.
Kang Myeong-seon, Head of the Fishing Village Cooperative
She is stout in body, and though she claims to have no makeup secrets her complexion is fair. Kang takes after her mother. She has a cheerful personality, looks younger than her age, and can deftly slice up raw fish, while being a skillful diver as well. Perhaps she was born with the lung capacity to dive down 15 meters below the surface.
This is Kang’s 11th year as head of the Saekdal-ri Fishing Village Cooperative, a job that requires active leadership and a strong sense of responsibility. Kang decides on such matters as who should clean up, and every morning she campaigns against littering if she sees even a single chopstick lying about. Thanks to her diligence, the seas off Saekdal-ri are known for their cleanliness. Kang also manages the cooperative’s restaurant.
The divers went out to sea in the dim light of dawn and returned at noon; their catch was quite good compared to other days. Of the 4,500 or so “sea women” who belong to the 19 fishing village cooperatives on Jeju Island, the Saekdal-ri cooperative accounts for only 23. So they are like one big family. There used to be 31, but some are now in ill health or have quit diving. The divers leave the small horned turbans in the water, coming back for them after they have matured. Their community would not be able to handle such a difficult job if they did not look out for each other. “I’m happy if I catch a single red sea cucumber, and I’m happy if I gather a single wild abalone,” Kang says. “There are days when I make good money, but there are also days when I come up empty.”
Most divers work 14 days out of the month for themselves, and 16 days as a group. They sell their personal harvests mainly to tourists. The profits are their own. Some make 300,000 won to 400,000 won a day, but others make far less than that. On group diving days they sell their catch as a group. If, for example, they make 15,000,000 won a month, each group member gets an equal share of about 700,000 won.
“We get stressed sometimes, but compared to other fishing village cooperatives we get along quite well,” Kang says. Whenever there is something to discuss they hold meetings. Order is important in the world of divers. There are diving regulations that are imposed by the coast guard authorities as well: avoid diving alone; dive in pairs so that you can get help if you are in danger; dive for a minute or less each time; dive for only four hours a day to avoid overworking; dive only eight days a month, and so forth. In particular, the coast guard recommends that senior divers over the age of 70 work in only shallow waters for no more than two hours a day. Three divers of the island have lost their lives this year, perhaps because of their advanced age. Every time the divers hear of such a fatal incident, they grieve as if for one of their own.
Daughter-in-Law also a Veteran Diver
“I tell mother to stop diving, to not go out when it’s cold or snowing or raining, but she says that if she stays home she’ll just sleep. So she goes out to the sea. Even after picking mandarins, she goes out to dive,” Kang says. Koh pities her two daughters and daughterin-law, and they take pity on her because she continues to dive. And yet their mother is still their anchor, an eternal teacher of the ways of the sea.
Kang smiles brightly as she says that designation as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage would improve the haenyeo’s status. She has four daughters and one son. Yet none of her children have devoted themselves to this tough occupation. She feels sad when she realizes that her family’s haenyeo line will end with her.
Koh’s daughter-in-law points out that while the haenyeo are now provided with wetsuits, in terms of policy support they receive no essential benefits. “Rather than this UNESCO designation or whatever, they need to give us actual welfare benefits.” After diving, the women are so drained of energy that they can barely lift a finger when they get home. Most suffer from chronic headaches. Both Koh and her daughter-in-law practically live on pain relievers, and as a result their stomachs have suffered. But Koh, the No. 1 haenyeo, says that she owes her health to the sea: “I think I have become healthier through diving. When I’m at home I get bored, so I will work as long as I can still move.”
“Ieosana ieodona / Ieodo sana hei / Our boat goes well, ieodo sana / When my mother gave birth to me / On a day with no sun or moon / Ieodo sana, it goes well, it goes well / Our lives go well, ieosana....”
The sound of the haenyeo’s song rings cheerfully over the pristine sea of Jeju. Koh knows her time is coming to an end. Her 62-year-old daughter and 60-year-old daughter-in-law live in this sea and its wild waters. Whatever the twists and turns of life, their lives have flourished in the sea.
Is she drawn to the sea, or is it the sea being drawn to her? Born on the wondrous volcanic island of Jeju, the top haenyeo Koh In-o has lived her life in the sea, on the brink of life and death. She is the daughter of the volcanoes. She is the daughter and goddess of the sea.
Jeju Seafood Prepared the Koh In-o Style
“All seafood is good food.” Seafood is always found on Koh In-o’s table, whether it be freshly caught octopus, abalone, sea cucumber, seaweed, or horned turban. But how does she prepare these fresh ingredients, which contribute to her healthy life? When you ask about her recipes, she scoffs: “What recipes? It’s simple!” Simple and light. Inland food is heavy on seasoning, but Koh loves the freshness of seafood.
She offers a tip for preparing octopus porridge (muneo juk), a year-round health food. The tentacles of a live octopus will writhe about, so slicing it can be quite tricky. After rinsing the octopus in water thoroughly, slice it quickly on a chopping board. Then stir-fry in sesame oil, add rice and water, and stir. Dry rice will work just as well as rice that has been soaked ahead of time. Finally, season lightly with salt and serve.
Abalone, not always available and often pricey, is best eaten raw. But savory abalone porridge (jeonbok juk) is an irresistible treat. First, finely chop up the innards of the abalone. Stir-fry in a spoonful of sesame oil and combine with soaked or dry rice rinsed several times and water, and boil. Soaked rice will take somewhat longer to cook. When the rice thickens, add the sliced abalone flesh. The key is to not boil the porridge for too long because the abalone will get tough.
Red sea cucumber (hong haesam) is also most tasty when eaten raw. On the mainland, people will boil the sea cucumber in salt water, dry it, and then eat it, but this is not the preferred style of Jeju locals. Horned turban (sora) does not have the rich flavor of abalone, but it can be used to make turban porridge or added to abalone porridge. After cracking the shell and extracting the flesh, stir-fry in oil and prepare the same way as abalone porridge. Or you can just eat the turban meat raw, or roast them in their shells. Horned turban can be boiled, sliced and seasoned to make an easy and tasty treat.
As for raw sea mustard (miyeok), it should be rinsed thoroughly, dried off, and blanched in boiling water until it turns green. Remove it from the boiling water and rinse several times in cold water, then remove moisture before seasoning with sesame oil, soy sauce, sliced scallions, and vinegar, and sugar if desired. There are several ways to use sea mustard. It can be added to fish soups, or combined with soybean paste to make a soup. In summer, you can prepare a cold soup made with sea mustard and soybean paste.
Then, suddenly taking a bottle from her bag, Koh says, “With this, you don’t have to worry about food.” It is whitish and looks like yogurt. It is Koh’s homemade shwindari. It is something the island’s ancestors of long ago enjoyed during the summer, a unique Jeju-style lactobacillus health drink. In the days before refrigeration, people could not afford to throw out spoiled rice, so they used it to make this beverage. They ground up rice malt (nuruk), added two spoons of this coarse powder to three bowls of cold rice, stirred it well and let it sit overnight, which would cause it to liquefy. Once froth formed on the surface, they added honey and sugar, and boiled it down. The reduced liquid would be placed in bottles and drunk, as Koh still does today. She gulps down a cup of her favorite drink. “When you don’t feel like eating, some of this does the trick.”