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Henyou from Jeju Island

Can you imagine the marine industry, which is engaged in a thousand people, while all of them are women and collect the catch using dives to hold their breath, using simple tools for this? This community has indeed existed for many centuries on Jeju Island (South Korea). And I think I’m very lucky. After all, I managed to catch a glimpse of it with my own eyes. Here are some photos of my meeting with henyo, along with excerpts from my research on them. I would like to tell you my story and gladly share my impressions of the ancient roots of freediving ….

The waters of Korea have a long history of diving for breath-holding. Seafood here is extremely valuable from a commercial point of view and is an integral part of Korean culture. These peoples went to the seas for a long time in order to manually collect marine life, which is not so easy to get using conventional fishing methods.
Another version of their motivation for scuba diving was the ability to get the coveted rainbow pearls found in the shells, which were offered to the king as a tribute. An 18th century document says that greedy officials took such extreme measures that they began to flog women, and even their parents and husbands, when they were not able to pay huge taxes in the form of mollusks. This delicacy among the Korean elite forced women to immerse themselves in ice water even during pregnancy.

Initially, scuba diving was exclusively a male occupation. But in the 18th century, women divers began to surpass men for several reasons. In the 17th century, many men died at sea while serving on warships or during deep sea fishing. For this reason, women were forced to dive in order to survive. In addition, the new laws imposed a huge tax on this occupation for men, which, in turn, did not affect women. Therefore, diving has become a very profitable activity for women.
One other explanation for this evolution of diving is the assumption that the lion’s share of women have more subcutaneous fat than men. As well as a higher threshold for adaptation of the body to cold water. This is what gave women the advantage of diving in the cold waters of Korea before the appearance of rubber wetsuits. Indeed, wetsuits appeared among divers relatively recently, only in the 1970s.
Whatever the true reason for the development of diving, this served as a rare example of the dominance of female society, where heenos replaced their husbands as the main breadwinners. And those, in turn, stood at the head of the household.

One clear, chilly morning, I met my Korean pen-friend Taihoon Lee, who invited me to join a group of henyo divers on a morning dive. This happened at the last minute. Usually, diving with foreigners and taking pictures of henyo are not welcome here.

I had my own idea about a peculiar session of cultural freedive exchange. I assumed that older women would be interested in my long fins and a small freediving mask. But they looked at me without any curiosity. In fact, when shooting, I felt like an uninvited paparazzi.

The feeling of camaraderie among women was very palpable; they gladly helped each other. Most of them have probably sailed together for over several decades.

According to 2014 data, 98% of the remaining henyo were over 50 years old. The oldest henyo when I met her was 94. I heard that some women have been practicing scuba diving since childhood for 70 years.

Bulteok (Bulteok) – this is the place where heenyo like to warm up or change their wet clothes to dry, after finishing their underwater work. Along with the fact that the bultheok served people as a physical space, it also occupied an important place as an institution for building strong relationships within the heye community. Here they exchange information, vote and make decisions on important issues.
The Korean government has recognized the importance of henyo women and, fortunately, celebrates the existence and keeps the history of henyo as one of Korea’s most valuable treasures. The government now provides many henyo benefits, including health insurance, and also grants them special rights to sell fresh seafood to Jeju.

Henyou are divided into various categories according to their age, character and ability to dive. There is a high, middle, and low class of henyo. They have a strict hierarchy order, which can be seen in the arrangement of places in accordance with the status in the bultoke. There is also a tradition in the henoe community to respect elders, and the actions and words of older people in the community are considered mandatory behavior patterns.

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