Jeju is the only self-governed province in South Korea. It has long been a trendy honeymoon and holiday destination. Most visitors seek the beaches, but remain clueless about the island’s local history and customs. One of the island’s most fascinating assets is its Haenyeo. Year round, female divers gather mollusks, seaweed and other edible sea life. But these are not ordinary divers. They use no breathing apparatus, and count solely on their own breath. Koh Hee-young acts not only as director, but as narrator in Breathing Underwater. She documents the daily routines of several Haenyeo, and gets to know some of their class system, traditions, and challenges.

Being a volcanic island, Jeju’s soil is not adequate for most land crops, so women take to the waters to survive. In the households of the Haenyeo, seafood is always on the menu. Unlike most countries living under continued patriarchy, Jeju is a place where women rule. They are the breadwinners. They feed their community. They look out for their neighbors and colleagues. Women are the backbone of most family units.

The divers train from the age of around 6 years old. Generally they can hold their breath for up to 3 minutes. Those who don’t quite reach the requirement are considered lower in rank even with years of practice. Diving depths can vary, but it is common practice to take medication ahead of a dive to alleviate pain from underwater pressure. Many divers are elderly and face health risks but insist on diving until they breathe their last breath.

An octopus can suffocate a diver. The swimmer can get tangled in floating sea grass and not reach the surface for air in time. Some Haenyeo simply hold their breath for too long when they see rare or special sea creatures. Agar-agar season brings with it the highest death toll. The cherished seaweed is the best harvest a Haenyeo can hope to make. It is considered an ocean gem exported for gelatin and beauty products.

The workplace can indeed become a graveyard. However, they never blame the sea for the death of loved ones. They just jump back in.


Breathing Underwater:

Korean Film Festival Canada – On Demand, October 29th – November 30th, 2020