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Siren Songs

The legendary mermaids of Jeju prepare to put on a show

Author Brendan Borrell

ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI

JEJU ISLAND, SOUTH KOREA—Inside a lava-rock building on the southern coast of Jeju Island, a dozen giddy, middle-aged mermaids sit hunched over, weaving silver tinsel into an old fishing net. One sports a glittery camisole. Another wears a mask of white makeup to conceal her sun-bronzed skin.

These are the famously tough haenyo, female shellfish divers who have plied the waters around this volcanic island for more than two centuries. Today the so-called mermaids of Jeju are dolling themselves up to sing at the haenyo festival—an annual celebration of their poise and perseverance—in the shadows of Sunrise Peak.

The women’s songs, as one might expect, concern all things maritime, including the hardships associated with their occupation. Kang Sun-ja, 61, has been free-diving since she was 15, and spends at least two weeks every month prying conch, abalone and sea cucumbers from rocks 15 feet deep in the frigid waters off the village of Gangjeong. She wears a wet suit and mask, but no snorkel or scuba gear.

Although the haenyo play an important role in the local culture, their numbers are on the decline: from 30,000 in the 1960s to some 5,000 today. In Kang’s cooperative, the youngest diver is 51 and the eldest 82. The tradition could vanish in 30 years.

None of this seems to faze Kang, though, who says she has no plans to retire. “As long as I can dive, I will dive,” she says sternly, before sneaking off to find her lipstick.

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