Cast off the southern tip of South Korea, Jeju Island rises from the Pacific’s emerald waters in a medley of colours. White-sand beaches and black jagged rocks ring much of the coast, basalt craters pocket the volcanic isle’s interior and in the small town of Pyeongdae-ri, an orange-roofed restaurant called Pyeongdae Sunggae Guksu sits by the beach. Step inside and the first thing you’ll notice is a series of photographs tacked to the wall of female divers emerging from the water.

The divers are a community of women known throughout the country as haenyeo (literally: “sea women”), and they are often likened to mermaids for their ability to plunge more than 10m into the sea without using oxygen masks to gather shellfish, abalone and other creatures. Haenyeo call what they do mujil, (“water work”), and spend up to seven hours a day, 90 days a year prying molluscs and other sea life from the rocky ocean floor barehanded or with a sharp fishing spear. Before a dive, the women hold hands in prayer and ask Jamsugut – the goddess of the sea – for safety and abundance. And after spending several minutes underwater, they emerge and send a fluted whistle across the waves to communicate with their fellow divers.

Jeju’s unique tradition of female divers dates back to at least the 17th Century. The rocky island’s scarcity of farmable land; poor, volcanic soil and harsh winds have led islanders to farm the sea instead. The arduous work of haenyeo became especially necessary when Korea was under Japanese rule between 1910 and 1945, and again during the extremities of the Korean War in the early 1950s, when more and more women had to take up work to contribute to their households.

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In the past, girls as young as seven years old would train to become haenyeo. According to the Jeju Haenyeo Museum: “In 1965, when the numbers of haenyeo were at their peak, over 23,000 Jeju diving women were working. That was roughly 21% of the total population of women over age 15, and nearly 80% of all those employed in the island’s fisheries industry.” But in recent decades, as women have increasingly left the island and opted for more modern work, Jeju’s haenyeo have dwindled and aged. Today, according local government figures, fewer than 4,000 haenyeo remain, and 84% are 60 or older.

The moment I found out about [the Unesco recognition] was the first time I felt proud to be a haenyeo

Although haenyeo have been able to earn a better living by selling their harvest to local fishermen in recent decades, their back-breaking profession has historically been considered low-class and dangerous, as many divers have died on the job and suffer from decompression sickness. And though their catches often end up on dinner tables across Korea, few haenyeo have traditionally had the education or autonomy to take full control of their business. But thanks to changing societal perceptions in recent years and the haenyeo practice being inscribed as a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016, things finally appear to be changing.

“The moment I found out about [the Unesco recognition] was the first time I felt proud to be a haenyeo,” said 65-year-old Park Suk-hee, who owns and operates the Pyeongdae Sunggae Guksu restaurant along with her 34-year-old daughter, Ko Ryou-jin (who is also a haenyeo). Of the many eateries on Jeju that claim to be run by divers today, Park’s little orange-roofed noodle joint is believed to be the only licensed restaurant that is actually owned and operated by haenyeo and serves dishes made from haenyeo-caught seafood.

Park and Ko opened Pyeongdae Sunggae Guksu out of their one-storey home in 2015. A courtyard divides the family’s restaurant from their residence and a collage of photos, newspaper clippings and thank-you cards from customers cover the restaurant’s walls. There’s a signed letter from Korean President Moon Jae-in commending them for their haenyeo work, printed stills from television shows where the two have appeared and a photo of Ko swimming with the Olympic torch ahead the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. Four four-person tables face the kitchen, and even when I showed up on a Tuesday at 15:00, every seat was filled as Park and Ko busily flitted between tables, ringing up orders while keeping an eye on Ko’s six-year-old daughter.

Empty sea urchin shells were perched on the windowsill, and a sign under the cash register states, “100% of our seafood has been caught by Pyeongdae-ri haenyeo in Pyeongdae-ri waters. 100% of our vegetables are from Jeju Island, and 100% of our kimchi is Korean.”

“A Jeju islander can tell imported fish from local fish straightaway,” Ko told me. “Jeju fish has a stronger aroma and a sweeter taste.” In fact, the family’s restaurant is named after their signature dish, sunggae guksu (“sea urchin noodles”) – a traditional Jeju dish made with wheat-flour noodles served in a warm broth and topped with vegetables and sea urchin roe.

Traditionally, the noodles for sunggae guksu are cooked in an anchovy broth that’s rather easy to come by. But after growing tired of the fishy smell of the broth, one day 12 years ago, Park experimented with a sample batch of noodles using sea urchin as the base for the broth. “There’s really no recipe. You boil the broth with sea urchin. You cook the noodles. You top it with sea urchin, carrots, scallion and sesame seeds. That’s it!” Now, just four years after opening, locals and visitors come from all over Korea to taste the family’s unique take on this Jeju classic and for the rare chance to eat inside a haenyeo home.

As per haenyeo guidelines, sea urchin harvesting is only permitted from March until June. While Park and Ko plunge deep into the ocean for much of the year in search of other sea-to-table creatures, during these months, they don wetsuits, face masks and flippers and wade just 1m into the surf with their team of six other haenyeo divers. The women scour the ocean floor for the spiny, black-coloured echinoderms hidden among the black volcanic rock. “If the weather is good, we can see a sea urchin’s spikes from afar,” Ko said. “But if it’s not, we have to feel around the rocks to find them.”

Park and Ko purchase their share of sea urchin for a discount rate and employ other haenyeo to help pry the shellfish open and harvest its creamy golden roe. A productive day might yield as many as 1,000 in one trip. Park says most haenyeo use a knife to slice the spiky shell open, but she and her team just use their bare hands. “All I need is a spoon to scoop out the flesh,” she said.

From there, what is not served the same day in the restaurant is immediately stored, dated and frozen fresh for the rest of the year. “It does taste a bit sweeter if you have it in season, but we manage to freeze them at their freshest,” Ko said. “Most other restaurants keep them in freezers with no idea which fish was caught where and when it was stored.”

Back in the kitchen, Park tastes the broth on a daily basis to ensure a consistent flavour and prepares the ingredients while Ko serves and mans the register. Other items on the menu include a type of cold noodle topped with spicy sauce called bibim-guksu, a deep-fried pancake called seafood jeon and a plate of seasonal raw fish. Depending on the season, the bibim-guksu and jeon can be made with octopus or conch that are harvested by hand some 10m deep from the seabed floor. And should you visit between late summer and early autumn, follow the islanders’ leads and order the raw octopus, with its chewy purple exterior and crevice-filled tentacles.

All haenyeo have had it pretty hard, but my mom went through a lot

Although haenyeo spend years diving for fish, historically, they have rarely had the opportunity to eat it themselves. Born at the end of the Korean War, Park’s own mother was a haenyeo until she retired at the ripe age of 90. “Growing up, sea urchin was way too expensive for us to eat,” she explained. “So, all we got to eat was miyuk-guk (seaweed soup) and rice – if we got to eat at all.” Ko’s father also had a lifelong illness that put the responsibility of providing for five children entirely on Park’s shoulders. “All haenyeo have had it pretty hard, but my mom went through a lot,” Ko said.

At 34, Ko is one of the youngest licensed haenyeo in the community. Despite government efforts to keep the tradition alive, hundreds of haenyeo retire every year and Ko says few younger people can bear the physical and mental pressures of the profession. A handful of haenyeo training schools have been established since 2008, but each only produces a few dozen graduates a year and even fewer of those students go on to pursue a career in the field.

Ironically, Park never even let Ko near the water until she was 25 years old and only suggested haenyeo life to her six years ago. After her second child, Ko had been struggling with a severe case of postpartum depression. “I couldn’t find a regular nine-to-five and my mom thought that I would feel better if I tried going underwater. By focusing on the beauty of life underwater, I found my old self,” she said.

In addition to their remarkable freediving skills, haenyeo are renowned for their strong sense of community. The divers divide their profits evenly and the women support each other through pregnancies, illnesses and family crises. The most experienced haenyeo masters, known as sanggun, lend guidance to their juniors, teaching them the art of breathing underwater (called sumbisori) and other tricks of the trade.

As Ko trained to become a haenyeo, she and her mother thought about opening up a coffee shop in their family’s storage area. While brainstorming ideas for the space, Ko remembered how her mother had developed her own sunggae guksu recipe 12 years earlier. But while the two hoped to open up their own restaurant, the women faced the challenge of juggling a highly stressful business in the afternoons and evenings while maintaining their own supply chain in the mornings.

With the exception of August, when breeding season prohibits haenyeo from the waters, Ko and Park start their day at 06:00 in the sea. They dive for four to six hours before heading to the restaurant for a full day of service. Most nights, Ko tries to spend as much time as possible with her two daughters and Park attends mandatory environmental lectures for haenyeo or heads haenyeo meetings. On Wednesdays, the day they have off, Park said she farms.

“I wake up before the sun rises and farm the carrots before it gets too hot. The scallions, the onions, the carrots… all the vegetables [we serve] here are actually from my field out back,” she told me. When I insisted on helping her farm, she took one look at me and said I couldn’t handle the hard work.

There’s a word in Korean that roughly translates as “refreshing and soothing”: shiwonhae. When I first tasted Park’s hot sunggae guksu sea urchin noodle, they were so shinwonhae and brimming with umami flavour that I ate at Pyeongdae Sunggae Guksu all five days I spent in the village. Each day, I asked for a small portion of the noodles, and each day, she and Ko filled the bowl to the top. Park, like many Korean grandmas, smiled as I asked for extra servings of kimchi and returned the bowls empty to the kitchen. She seemed especially pleased the one day I came for both breakfast and dinner – sunggae guksu to start the day and a jeon for admiring the sunset.

One day, I overhead a man paying for his meal ask, “It’s only 8,000 won (£5.25) for a bowl of noodles?” Ko explained that her mother “doesn’t believe in having more than enough.” The fact that Ko and Park sell their own catches not only allows them to serve what’s freshest, but also keeps their prices down.

Park said being a haenyeo has helped her value the sea and she sees her restaurant as a way of promoting what the ocean has to offer. “There are people who stay in the neighbourhood for three days and eat here all three days, and people who come here straight from the airport to have their first Jeju meal here,” she smiled. “I am truly thankful to the sea for allowing me to have such a full life.

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