I recall one of these ladies watching us with some amusement at Hyeopje beach after the banana boat capsized for the third time as we struggled, bobbing in the water in our life jackets.
The sea women here and on larger Cheju Island, off the southern coast of South Korea, are among the world’s most skillful and toughest natural divers. Year round, they plumb the sea bottom with no scuba gear, in one- or two-minute dives that mix dexterity, desire and death.
“Every time I go in,” said Yang Jung Sun, 75, “I feel as if I am going to the other side of the world. When I see something I could sell, I push myself in toward it.
“When I get out of breath, I push myself out of the water. It is all black in front of me. My lungs are throbbing. At that moment I feel I am dead. It happens every time. Every time. I tell myself I am not going to do that again. I always tell myself that. But greed makes me go back again.”
This clashed with Korea’s Confucian culture, in which women have traditionally been treated as inferior, leading administrators from Seoul to bar the women from diving, ostensibly because they exposed bare skin while at sea. “The central government forbade the women from diving, but the women just gave them some abalone to look away,” said Professor Ko, whose mother and grandmother were sea women.
On Cheju, market forces prevailed over the Confucian preference for boys. “If people had a boy, they didn’t celebrate,” Professor Ko said. “If it was a girl, they celebrated, because they knew that the girl would dive and bring money to the family.