A Once in a Lifetime Experience: Swimming with the Haenyeo of Jeju Island

This past weekend I traveled to Jeju Island to speak at the “Hawaii Meets Jeju” gala dinner at the kind invitation of Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong.  The dinner celebrated the great relationship between sister “states” Jeju and Hawaii, two beautiful travel destinations.  The visit to Jeju was fantastic!  In addition to attending the gala dinner and having a great meeting with the Jeju Governor, I was able to explore Manjang-gul Cave, tour the Olle Walk with some local students, and visit a tangerine farm.

 A fun adventure in Jeju!

The highlight of my trip involved the world-famous female divers of Jeju Island, the haenyeo.  I had always heard about the great tradition of the haenyeo and I wanted to see it first-hand.  On this trip, not only did I get to observe them, but I also had the thrilling opportunity to swim with an inaugural class who were beginning their studies at the Jeju Hansupul Haenyeo School.  The school, established in 2008, has the mission of passing down Jeju women divers’ culture to South Korea’s younger generation.  I understand Jeju Island has been preparing to nominate Jeju Haenyeo as a candidate for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage designation.  I believe the haenyeo tradition is a great cultural legacy and I truly hope it makes the list. 

The enthusiasm of the new diving students and the instructors was amazing!  It was great to see so many young people, and even foreigners, interested in haenyeo.  I put on a wetsuit, got a special net attached to a flotation device called a 태왁 (Tae-wak), and got ready to get in the water.  Before diving, I gave a few remarks at the incoming class’ opening ceremony.  I have to say it was the first time I gave a speech wearing a wetsuit!  

Meeting Jeju haenyeo

After swimming with the haenyeo for approximately 30 minutes, I can attest to their amazing skills and it was remarkable watching their prowess in the water.  Even in murky and choppy water, they were able to spot the crustaceans and other seafood from the top of the waves, dive in immediately, and catch the animal with a hook very effectively.  They were very kind to me and put some of their catches in my basket.

Here is a short video clip of my haenyeo experience.  It was lots of fun!

I am very comfortable in the water and could have swam longer as the water temperature was very pleasant.  A couple of the haenyeo even complimented me on my swimming technique.  When I was younger, I spent a lot of time swimming in lakes, so this was a lot of fun for me.

Can you see me in the photo? (I’m in the middle)

Finally, perhaps the most fun was sitting down all together to a great meal of the seafood that we had just caught.  Some great Jeju chefs prepared some superb seafood delicacies.  To accompany the meal, we also enjoyed Jeju’s own Hallasan soju.  The entire experience was great, and is something I will never forget.  Thanks to all those who helped facilitate this wonderful experience.  

 Cheers to Jeju and its delicacies!

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