Field Notes

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Your Korean dive master     Photo: Photo by Jen Judge

Old Women of the Sea
Freediving with mermaids in South Korea

I'm about to have my ass handed to me by a gang of Korean grandmothers with painted-on eyebrows. It's a raw morning in the village of Hado, on the eastern coast of South Korea's Jeju Island, and I've come to visit these haenyeo (literally "women of the sea") to get a lesson in the art of freediving. A cold drizzle has me on edge, but the ladies seem not to notice. "Don't you want to dive with us?" one sweet 72-year-old asks. The truth is, with the rain ratcheting up and the East China Sea hovering around 58 degrees, I can't think of anything I'd rather do less.

For the women of Jeju, diving is life. They took up freediving in the 17th century to support their families because their sailor husbands were frequently lost at sea. They harvest abalone, conch, octopus, urchin, and seaweed. And though the trade is dwindling as young girls find easier livelihoods, Jeju still has about 5,000 working haenyeo.

Fighting back my anxiety, I pry on my wetsuit and clamber into the water alongside the ladies. My hands go numb and the cold stings my face as we swim. By the time the divers stop, we're a half-mile offshore. Kelp shrouds the seafloor in a thick carpet of crimson and thrusts upward in ropy vines that surge with the waves. The haenyeo kick down 40 feet to the seabed to cut abalone from the rocks with sharp metal hooks. One minute passes, sometimes two, before they stream to the surface. They stay above water for only a minute or so between descents, chatting and smiling, seemingly oblivious to the rolling waves. They could be plucking tomatoes.

I try finning down, but by the time I reach the bottom my lungs burn. I panic, surface, and just watch, amazed. After an hour, I'm freezing, so I fight the waves back to land, where I wait under my umbrella, feeling like a pansy. Finally, four hours later, the haenyeo begin floating in one by one, their nets bulging. The women lead me into their stone warming hut. Once they've built a fire, they press whole abalone into my mouth as they clean their haul. The haenyeo may be tougher than walrus hide, but they're still grandmothers at heart.

DO IT: Korean Air flies daily from Seoul to Jeju City. The haenyeo don't offer guided trips, but with some wrangling you might convince them. NAUI-certified Big Blue 33 operates dive trips out of Sogwipo City, on the southern coast of Jeju. Two-tank dives, $65; bigblue33.co.kr

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