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K-drama Flashback- ‘The Last Mermaids: Huntresses Of The Sea’

Director Kim Sagan’s ode to the free-diving women of Jeju Island and their fighting spirit against the raging tides of history and economic woes

Debashree Dutta Feb 17, 2022

'The Last Mermaids: Huntresses Of The Sea' - Photo courtesy of Magellan TV

Have you ever heard of ‘Haenyeo”s? A traditional practice in Jeju Island, that involves female divers who dive deep into the sea for shellfish, conches, and seafood to survive and make a living. According to the Haenyeo Museum on Jeju, thousands of haenyeo women existed in the 1960s. However, as a result of pollution and more people moving to the cities, the number of haenyeo women is rapidly declining. Today’s flashback story will explore director Kim Sagan’s 2009 documentary, The Last Mermaids: Huntresses of The Sea based on a long history of the lives and struggles of these professional women sea divers who are hard-working, courageous, and do not bat an eyelid before jumping into the ocean without any breathing apparatus.

With its picturesque scenery, temperate climate, the island of Jeju, situated south of the Korean peninsula, is one of Korea’s most beautiful holiday destinations. The island is known as Korea’s Hawaii–the land of roaring winds, mighty rocks, and women, the extra-ordinary free-diving haenyeo women. The breadwinners, who dive without any respiratory support only to feed their children and take care of their families. The women, some of whom are in their eighties, dive for shellfish for sustenance. This traditional practice, therefore, elevates women’s status in the community thereby representing the island’s identity and encouraging sustainable growth. Kim’s documentary sheds light on this side of Jeju, its semi-matriarchal society.

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In the 17th century, the haenyeo was first referenced in history. Men went out for fishing or to do jobs in warships and never returned, it is said that the sailor husbands of the women often got lost in the sea. So to make both ends meet, diving became a predominantly female occupation. In fact, it became a compulsion. These women used to collect abalone and seaweed from the ocean floor and at the same time, they took to agricultural activities, harvesting the land. This practice by the sea diving ladies has continued for over 2000 years and so they are the heroes of the Jeju society who rock the cradle and rule the world.

Similar to the haenyeo women are the ‘Ama’s’ of Japan. According to a report published in Culture Trip, the ama women are the pearl diving mermaids of Japan, part of an age-old fishing tradition practiced by small coastal villages. Like the haenyeo women, the ama’s gather abalone, seaweed, and other shellfish. However, their most profitable pursuit is diving for pearls. Holding their breath for two minutes at a time, the ama women surface and exhale slowly, making a whistling sound known as ‘Isobue’ just like the ‘Sumbi-sori’ let out by the haenyo women.

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Take a look at this video by Great Big Story which features 78 years old Kim Okja, the haenyeo woman. Every day she follows her routine of going deep into the sea to harvest sea life and support her family. She gets tired and breathless for sure but embodies incredible mental and physical strength.

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