JEJU ISLAND, SOUTH KOREA - We were traveling the beautiful coast road that wraps around this tourist island headed to the airport after a few days of R&R when someone in the car pointed at the rocky shoreline and asked “what’s that?”
The beautiful coastline surrounding Jeju is where pearl divers harvest rewards.
Suddenly, all eyes focused on the black volcanic beach created when lava spewed out of the mouth of iconic Mt. Halla thousands of years ago.
In the dark water we spotted figures bobbing up and down but were too far away to identify what they were.
“Dolphins?” one passenger wondered.
“Small whales?” another asked.
Our driver took his eyes off the winding road for a moment, looked at the choppy surf, and solved the mystery.
“Not fish,” he said. “Mermaids.”
“Huh,” we responded collectively.
“Yes, they are the mermaids of Jeju Island,” our driver Mr. Kim smiled.
We demanded he pull off the road and explain.
The scholarly Mr. Kim gave us a brief history on the mermaids of Jeju Island, women divers who, without the aid of oxygen tanks, sink to the bottom of the waters off what’s known as the Island of Gods for long periods in search of seaweed, shellfish and abalone — not pearls like their Japanese counterparts — all delicacies to the people living here.
“No one knows exactly when the women started doing this on Jeju,” said Mr. Kim. “My father told me they began the practice, known as chulga (leaving home), in the 19th century in Busan (on the mainland) and eventually they came here.”
The waters off Jeju are rich with seafood so the divers have plenty to harvest.
“The Korean word for diving is muljil or baekat muljil,” said Mr. Kim, who also told us the women who dive “make a very good living but work long and hard.”
Sadly, though, the practice is becoming extinct.
“When I was a boy,” said the 60-something Mr. Kim, “there were thousands of divers but now there are just a few hundred left. It is very hard work and the young women of today do not like to work this hard. Soon, the women left will be too old to dive and an important part of our heritage will be lost.”
With our cameras at the ready, we asked if we had time to get closer to the shore and get some photographs of the women working. The ever-obliging Mr. Kim opened the car door, cautioned us to step carefully over the jagged rocks that formed a path to the shore, and led us in the direction of the mermaids of Jeju Island.
Jeju, also known as Chejudo (Island of Gods) is a mythical place that rose from the seabed about two million years ago and formed a paradise island that has become revered by honeymooners.
Jeju was actually an independent country called Tamna but became a part of 5,000-year-old Korea in 662 AD. It is culturally distinct from Korea due to its isolation from the mainland – an hour’s flight away. It’s an island of legends; one of the most famous being Tol Harubang, often regarded as the god of protection and fertility, hence the island’s popularity with newlyweds.
Its subtropical climate makes Jeju the perfect holiday location. Add to that top-rated resorts, lava caves, sandy beaches, captivating scenery, beautiful waterfalls, folk villages, world-class golf and spas and you see why tourists headed to Korea always make Jeju a must stop. And, don’t miss one of our favorite attractions, the teddy bear museum, where historic events are played out using the cuddly stuffed creatures as historic figures.
Thanks to Mr. Kim’s expert guidance, we were soon standing on the shore and watching the divers taking long, deep breaths before disappearing under the choppy surf. To those who lingered on the surface, we directed waves, but they did not respond, at first.
“The women divers are very shy,” said Mr. Kim. “They have no time to wave at tourists.”
After a few minutes, one of the women pulled herself out of the water holding a small bag and transferred the contents into a much larger sack lying on the rocks near us.
She refused to look at us – no doubt she has been propositioned by thousands of camera-toting tourists over the years. That’s when Mr. Kim intervened. He shouted something at the woman in Korean and she shot back what sounded like an angry response. The two continued to banter for a few minutes when suddenly the woman got up and headed towards us.
“She has agreed to come and talk to you,” said Mr. Kim, who then quickly became our translator.
The women’s weathered features told us she had been diving since her youth. Her smile captivated us instantly and her soft voice was music to our ears.
In the few moments she granted to talk to us, the woman told of how her mother and grandmother were divers as well but her daughter was in college, hoping to become a nurse.
“She says she will be the last diver of her family, unless one day a granddaughter replaces her,” said Mr. Kim.
The woman graciously posed for photographs but soon was called back to the water by her colleagues. She smiled and waved at us before slipping into the cold black surf where she swam out to meet the others.
Moments later, the mermaids of Jeju Island disappeared and we returned to the car.
As Mr. Kim drove off, we glanced back but the women were nowhere to be seen and we were left to wonder: Were the mermaids of Jeju Island just another myth?
NOTE: Sources tell Travel Life that the United Nations will add Jeju Island to its list of UNESCO World Natural Cultural Heritage Sites in June.