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Siren Songs (Hemispheres)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

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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 Jeju’s famously tough Haenyo, the 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 island-wide Haenyo festival—an annual celebration of their poise and sacrificein the shadows of Sunrise Peak Crater.

The women’s songs, as one might expect, concern all things nautical, including the hardships associated with their occupation. Kang Sun-ja, 61, has been free-diving since she was 15, and spends at least half of every month attached to a bright orange buoy as she pries conch, abalone and sea cucumbers from rocks 15 feet deep in the frigid waters around Gangjeong village. She wears a wetsuit and mask, but no snorkel or scuba gear. 

Although the Haenyo play a very important role in Jeju culture, their numbers are on the decline: from 30,000 in the 1950s to some 5,000 today. In Sun-ja’s cooperative, the youngest diver is 51 and the eldest 82. The tradition could vanish in 30 years.

None of this seems to faze Sun-ja 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.

Read the story in the January issue of Hemispheres magazine