Rendezvous with the freediving
Haenyeo grand mothers of the sea
> Encounter with Jeju-do Island off the coast of South Korea <
The locals call Jeju-do "The Hawaii of the Orient" as they are attracted to the natural treasures of the island: the Ch'eon-ji-yeon and Cheong-bang waterfalls around Sogwip'o, extensive systems of spectacular lava-tube formations, large caves, extinct volcanoes, and the rough sea. So, obviously, as island enthusiast, we had to spend a week here exploring the island. The entire island is a World Heritage Site, and the nature is admittedly a big draw, with the island often clothed in swirling mist. We think however that the real treasure is the people and odd culture characterized by the Haenyeos.
Women here are known as Haenyoes. They are the heads of the unusual and unique matriarchal family structures and the island society. They work as free-divers all year round whatever the temperature of the water, collecting abalones and conches. All over the island, we saw how lava and explosive magma was a constant feature, not just in natural formations but also as a material for gnome-like, slightly eerie manmade statues and sculptures, which create a watchful atmosphere while on the island. It creates a strong sense of mythology and spirit that speaks to the Korean visitor (and the few foreigners who come to hear about the island) with the magnetism of a pilgrimage.
Comfortably located off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, it has a more tropical appearance and charm than rest of the country
We flew into Jeju Island with great expectations on the stone statues which cover the whole island. Dol hareubang, the stone statues, are fortress protectors or guardians. With its unique appearance sculpted out of hole-ridden basalt, the Dol hareubang literally stands as the most famous symbol and face of Jejudo Island. Crafting of the statues started around 1700-century. Reminiscent of the Moai statues of Easter Island. One theory is that it was spread into Jeju-do from the South Pacific
Close to the beautifully situated Seogwipo coast line, the waterfall is hidden inside a deep gorge. Jeju is a wild volcanic island with many waterfalls and a wild interior. When we screened the internet for key opinions on "world top10 hidden island gems" or "top10 remote, undiscovered islands", Jeju often figures on such lists. It has a fair bunch Chinese and Korean tourists, but is less unknown to Western travel addicts and tourist. The island became one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2011.
We trekked up the Sotbannae river along a large gorge in Southern Juju Island. It was early spring, a great time to visit the island
Jeju is surrounded by water and a key activity is to fish. What makes the island special is the many locals hawkers serving raw, freshly caught seafood near most rock beaches. Often consumed together with strong local alchohol, it is a key activity for local tourists to get a taste of the ocean. We didn't even need to pay, since everywhere we went, we were dragged into eating and drinking sessions by local Korean tourists who wanted us "foreigners" to join in and get new local friends.
One raw dish typically costs about 20,000-40,000 won (sea cucumber, sea squirt, spoon worm, conch, spoon worm and octopus and so on). Dig in, it is very tasteful!
The list of waterfalls around the world which debouche into an ocean is very short. We've visited several of them, incl. the wild Bøsdalafossur waterfall on the remote Faroe Islands in the Norhern Atlantic. On Jeju Island, Jeongbang Pokpo waterfall is a close candidate on the beauty-scale, dropping 23m directly into the sea. After spending an hour here, we had raw seafood as lunch on the beach right next to the waterfall, together with a bunch of drunken Korean men. "Geonbae!" ("Cheers!")
Everywhere in Northeast Asia, spring time is a special event. On Jeju Island the blooming of bright yellow rapeseed and canola flowers marks the start of a change in the Korean landscape. Jeju's black volcanic landscapes are a perfect contrast to the yellow flowers
Korean cuisine is special compared to the rest of the world, and has many very unique and delicious tastes. On our trip to Jeju we visited a lot of local markets in the villages around the coastline, while circumnavigating the island. There were many meat dishes, but mostly we had seafood as the local food in this category is unique and has had much historical development time to be perfected. The food was amazing
We used local busses to travel all around the island of Jeju. On the eastern coast one of the most impressive sights of Jeju is a black volcano, covered in green plants, which is shaped like a big punchbowl: Named Seongsan Ilchulbong. Beneath the volcano a small beach was used by old woman - the so-called Haenyeo female divers - as a base to catch fresh sea food and serve it directly on the cold black boulders on the beach. The atmosphere was magical and out-of-this-world
Haenyeos are female divers who enter the sea without any breathing equipments and catch seafood susch as octopus, spoon worms, seaweed, and clams. They are able to dive up to 25m below sea leavel for anywhere between 30 secs to 2 minutes. The mos striking part is the age of these Haenyeos, which is average more than 60 years old.
Irrespective of summer or winter ocean temperatures, the Haenyeos dive the sea everyday to make a living. The old lady on the picture picked up an octopus at the ocean bottom for us, which was prepared on the beach by cutting it into peaches. We had it for lunch that day
Any shellfish, clam or octopus small enough to fit in their buoyed nets are sold whole or as sashimi at tiny ad-hoc restaurants they run by the shore
... cathed, and eaten fresh, sashimi-style, just two minutes after being pulled out of the sea
It is a very old and unique culture which is preserved on Jeju Island. Currently, there are around 20,000 Haenyeos and mainly concentrated in Jeju Island in South Korea. However, it is expected that Haenyeos will be disappear in 20 years as the younger generation are not willing to pick up these skills.
We visited sereval beach sites on Jeju to chat with the old Haenyo women divers who are carrying on a Korean legacy that goes back generations.
Seongsan Ilchulbong, also called the Sunrise Peak, is one of Jeju Island's key attractions and is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. We went there to climb it during the morning. This picture was taken from a tourist stand poster next to the volcano (we did not bring a drone ourselves)
Off the eastern coast of Jeju, Seongsan Ilchulbong is one of Jeju's most distinctive views - a punchbowl formed volcane, which can be hiked in around 2 hours.
Seongsan Ilchulbong volcano has steep walls crying for rock climbers to challenge the steepness and heights
On top of Seongsan Ilchulbong volcano. We trekked to the top and around it in a couple of hours. The weather was Spring-like, cloudy, but comfortably warm. The yellow rapeseed flowers, marking the coming of spring, prided the landscape surrounding the volcano
We went on a daytrip to Udo (also called U-island), a small island located at the eastern coast of Jeju Island. It's a great little miniature of larger Jeju Island, boasting fertile soil and black volcanic boulders, local heritages such as the female divers, and the stone statues. Also here, we enjoyed raw shellfish directly on the sea shore. After the Jeju tour we probably had eaten several kg's of raw sea animals - digestion and stomach feeling?... No problem, it was great and a healthy living