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First Fukushima, now COVID-19: South Korea's famed female divers face uncertain times

First Fukushima, now COVID-19: South Korea's famed female divers face uncertain times

After about four hours of diving, this female diver emerges from the water with her catch for the day inside the orange buoy. (Photo: Lim Yun Suk)

JEJU, South Korea: Every April in the fishing village of Jongdal, a day-long ritual takes place. Shamans make offerings to the gods, praying for bountiful catches and the safety of those who venture out to sea.

Leading up to the ceremony, a group of women prepare food – to feed those in other realms, as well as actual villagers. These women are "haenyeo", the famed female divers of Jeju. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that has battered the global economy spares no one, not even these women. 

"It has been a difficult year for haenyeo. Facing COVID-19 was like going to war except without weapons," the head shaman Song Young-mi tells CNA. A shaman dances and chants, calling on the gods of the sea to help keep the female divers safe and to bless them with abundant catches for another year. This shaman ritual is an annual event held in most villages across Jeju Island where many of the female divers live. (Photo: Lim Yun Suk)

THE MERMAIDS OF JEJU  

Distinctive whistle-like cries ring out as, one by one, heads emerge from the ocean. Carbon dioxide is expelled forcefully from the lungs of divers, the most experienced of whom stay submerged for up to three minutes. 

Known as the mermaids of Jeju, these women deposit their catch in sacks tied to orange buoys, before heading back down. Some of the divers go as deep as 20m, all on a single breath of air. And they do this for hours at a go. 

"I'm not really how sure how long we stay out in the sea. But I think it is about four to five hours," Ko Soon Hee tell us as she comes out of the water. Putting aside her diving mask and flippers, the wetsuit-clad 66-year-old drags an orange buoy filled with the day's catch – sea urchin - to a house where the spiny creatures will be cleaned and sold. 

Female divers like Ko have been around since the 17th century. The women are the family breadwinners, an anomaly in a country more accustomed to a patriarchal structure. 

At its peak in the 1960s, there were around 23,000 haenyeo on Jeju Island. Now there are 4,000 – most of them getting on in years. Ko, a sprightly sexagenarian, says she is considered one of the younger ones: "That grandmother over there is 82. And she's still very good."

South Korea's female divers, known as haenyeo, sort out their catch for the day on Jeju Island. (Photo: Lim Yun Suk)

Divers CNA spoke to said they make an average of 150,000 won (US$130) a day. The really good ones pull in double that. "But remember, we don't go out every day. Sometimes we don't go out for days because of the weather," says Mrs Ko. "That's how we could live, and send our children to schools." 

IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC

For haenyeo, this year's conch season has been especially hard. Normally, most of these edible sea snails that they harvest find ready buyers in Japan. Not this year. 

"We were not able to export (conch) to Japan because when the staff come back, they have to be quarantined. And so we didn't export," says Mrs Ko. "It's spawning season so harvesting conch is banned now, and we will start again in October. Hopefully, the situation will improve."

Demand for other types of seafood has also plunged because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government data shows exports from Jeju's fishing industry fell 16 per cent from a year prior to about US$30 million in 2020. 

FUKUSHIMA FEARS 

But even more than the coronavirus, it is a plan by the Japanese government to release contaminated water from a stricken nuclear plant that is worrying these women. "We are very afraid about Fukushima because it will hurt us. It will be harmful to us too. I don't know if we will be able to export conch at all to Japan. We are all very worried. I guess we will just have to wait and see," says Ko. A diver next to her voices her concerns: "Can we still dive? Will it be safe for us to go into the sea?"Just before dawn, the head shaman and the head of Jongdal village, hold a prayer calling on the sea gods to come to their ritual. Jongdal, like all other villages across Jeju Island, holds such ritual for its female divers. (Photo: Lim Yun Suk) Experts have warned that the radioactive water from the Fukushima plant could reach the waters off Jeju Island and the East Sea 200 days and 280 days respectively from the time Japan starts releasing the water.

Jeju's governor Won Hee Ryong has called on Japan to deal with the issue as a "human environmental security issue" amid worries by the islanders who liken Japan's move to a death sentence passed on the island's fishery and tourism industries. 

Many are worried that Jeju's reputation as a producer of some of South Korea's freshest seafood could be tainted by the wastewater from Fukushima. 

One shop owner who has been running a fish shop for about 20 years at Dongmun Fish Market – Jeju's largest - says she remembers how badly the Fukushima disaster in 2011 hurt businesses here. 

"After the disaster, all food imports from Japan were banned. And people refused to eat anything that came from Japan," she says. "If that contaminated water enters our waters and especially here in Jeju since we are close, then we really won't have anything to eat. That's very worrying." 

DIVINE HELP

More than ever, this year's ritual is seen as an important one for the 1,200 residents of Jongdal, many of them haenyeo. 

"We hold this shamanistic ritual to pray that for all 12 months in a year we can all be safe and that there will be no accidents when we go out to sea," says Hyun Ro-sa, the wife of the village chief. She says all other villages around Jeju Island usually hold their own rituals like this for haenyeo.

Villagers from Jongdal watch as a shaman offers prayer to the gods of the sea in front of a table filled with food cooked by the female divers themselves. A female diver stands next to the shaman, offering her own prayers. (Photo: Lim Yun Suk)

In more joyous pre-pandemic times, the day of the ritual would have taken on a festive feel – villagers coming by for a meal prepared by haenyeo themselves, or partaking in games with other residents. But the threat of the coronavirus means that this year, only haenyeo are attending. 

The ritual starts before dawn with the head shaman going to a cave site to pray for the gods to come to the village that day. Then at 9am, a group of five shamans take turns to repeatedly offer prayers to the gods. 

Every once in a while, they break the routine with dance and song – sometimes together with haenyeo – or kneel down in front of a table set with food offerings, praying that the gods will keep them safe and give them abundant catches. 

At one point, a shaman starts crying, declaring the empathy she has for all these women who risk their lives to support their families. In between prayers, the women bow to the gods, sometimes putting down cash as offerings. 

"We pray for haenyeo because their lives are important here. But not just them, fishermen and ship owners too. And we pray for those who have died at sea," says the head shaman Song. "We may not be able to see them but all the gods of the sea attend these rituals." 

At around 5pm, the ritual draws to close as a shaman carries a boat filled with food out to sea. He lays it down gently and it sails away. The villagers hope it takes all evil spirits with it and in doing so, keeps the waters safe for the mermaids of Jeju. 

Source: CNA/ac

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