A Day In The Life of A Traditional Freediver in Jeju

The new JW Marriott Jeju Resort & Spa offers adventurous guests the opportunity to dive with the island’s famed haenyeo, or female divers.
by Shamilee Vellu

Jeju freediver

“Come, come!” Bobbing next to me in the cold, slate-grey waters off Jeju, Yesaeng Hyun urges me to dive down with her into the briny depths. I’m not sure how I got here: I’ve always been afraid of the sea, but when the concierge at the JW Marriott Jeju Resort & Spa offered me a chance to dive with Jeju’s famed haenyeo, (or professional female divers) I immediately said yes.

I thought it would be incredible to meet this iconic yet insular community of women in their element. Also, I’ve been in swimming pools, how hard could it be?

Well, fools rush in. First, I stuffed myself into the longest and largest women’s wetsuit they could find at Beophwan Haenyo Community Centre, then strapped on round diving goggles, a weighted belt, and flippers and proceeded to stagger like a drunken penguin across jagged rocks into the sea.

A dying trade

Tools used by the haenyeo.

“When I was young, I was scared of the water too,” says Hyun, who started when she was 20 years old and now, at 53, is vice chairman of the female divers’ community of Beophwan fishing village. Like many others, Hyun says poverty made becoming a haenyeo her only option, and apart from the rubber wetsuits that were introduced in the 1970s, “nothing much has changed”.

Divers don’t use any breathing equipment or even flashlights. Every dive is a brush with danger, like drowning, decompression sickness, stinging jellyfish, and the occasional shark.

The vast majority of Korean haenyeo are located on Jeju Island and typically work six-hour days, up to 90 days of the year. Experienced haenyeo can hold their breath for more than two minutes, diving five to 20m each time to harvest seaweed and assorted creatures like sea urchins, sea snails, and abalone that they prise from rocks using a bitchang, a steel, hook-shaped tool.

Jeju freediver

The cliff along the Jeju Ole Trail.

Their skill is legendary — the best haenyeo can apparently predict the weather just by listening to the sound of the ocean’s waves. According to 2017 statistics, 679 working haenyeo were over 80 years old. In 2016, UNESCO inscribed Jeju’s haenyeo culture as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Hyun politely demurs when I ask why they don’t don scuba equipment. “It’s harmful to the environment because (when) you can breathe underwater, (it) means you catch more seafood,” she says. “But if this continues, we will catch too much, and the amount of seafood will decrease.”

At one point, it seemed the haenyeo would face a similar fate. “Until seven years ago, I was the youngest diver in our community,” says Hyun. “As the women in our community began to age and the number of divers dwindled, we made the decision to open up. We realised the importance of sharing this precious haenyeo culture, which is deeply intertwined with our way of life, with the next generation.”

Beophwan’s haenyeo school was established and its currently oversubscribed programme — which comprises two months of intensive training and a two-year internship — includes students as young as 19 and even a foreigner, says Hyun.

Sleek opulence 

JW Marriott Jeju Resort and Spa exterior. (Photo: Ben Richards)

If, like me, you’re after just a taste (rather than the full banchan) of haenyeo life, speak with the friendly concierge at the new JW Marriott Jeju Resort & Spa, which opened in March and is an hour’s drive from Jeju airport.

Perched atop a cliff in Seogwipo on Jeju’s southern coast, the resort’s undulating form is the work of architecture studio WATG. Inspired by Korean architecture and Jeju’s stunning vistas, the design features a vast cantilevered roof and expansive lobby offering dazzling views of the East China Sea and nearby Beomseom island. It also clad the building’s facade with locally sourced volcanic rock, recalling the traditional stone-stacked walls lining the island’s roads.

A bird’s eye view of JW Marriott Jeju Resort and Spa. (Photo: Ben Richards)

Meanwhile, uber-designer Bill Bensley took inspiration from Jeju’s abundant canola fields, daubing guestrooms, upholstery, and public areas with an unexpectedly joyful shade of vibrant yellow. Other Bensley touches, such as the quilted patterns on the walls, towering woodwork inspired by antique Korean cabinetry, and delightful metal flying fish skirting the corridor baseboards, whimsically provide a sense of place.

There are 197 keys (including 28 suites) spread out over the sprawling 27,000 sqm resort, meaning its many public spaces never feel crowded. Standard Deluxe rooms — which come with a separate powder room — start from a spacious 45 sqm. I stayed in a Panorama Suite, which at 93 sqm, was the entire size of my last apartment.

With separate living, dining, and sleeping areas adorned in blond wood and seating in that gorgeous, uplifting yellow, my suite also had balconies offering sweeping views of the sea and infinity pool.

The living quarters of the Panorama Suite. (Photo: PROD Studio, Park Jae Young)

To top things off, my huge bathroom contained an enormous yellow marble bathtub that was so voluminous, that I gave up on filling it in time for dinner. The resort describes it as accommodating two, but you could probably triple this. You could also say that the epic bathtub epitomises the opulent yet impeccably sleek sense of luxury that permeates every aspect of JW Marriott Jeju.

The service is consistently friendly, assured, and intuitive. There is a Rolls-Royce for ferrying VIP guests and a pretty formidable art collection (thanks to the resort’s art-collecting Korean owner). These include works by Yoshitomo Nara, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Maurizio Cattelan, whose stuffed pigeons perch so convincingly on the Hanok-style frames in the lobby that you instinctively duck when you see them.

And Ugo Rondinone’s distinctive yellow, pink and blue boulders — which many will recognise from last year’s FIFA World Cup — is a prime photospot on a sloping lawn facing the sea.

For the picky eater

Food offerings at the resort are varied, abundant, and polished. Like the gleaming marble-lined Island Kitchen, the resort’s all-day dining restaurant serves a buffet of local delicacies like Jeju black pork, abalone porridge, and kaleidoscopic, paper-thin raw sea cucumber slices alongside antipasto and patisserie displayed like jewels on counters and in glass vitrines.

Jeju freediver

Yeoumul Jeju Cuisine Restaurant. (Photo: PROD Studio, Park Jae Young)

Mornings are wonderfully leisurely here, with breakfast service lasting till 2pm. “When people are on holiday, it doesn’t make sense for them to wake up early just to go to breakfast,” says Jay Chang, the resort’s F&B manager (hoteliers, take note).

The Island Kitchen is also where to enjoy the ultra-popular Brunch Royale, a Bacchanalian blowout of champagne, Prunier caviar on green tea blinis, and assorted local dishes like gogi guksu (pork noodles in broth). One of many Instagrammable highlights include a purse-sized, crescent-shaped croissant, which was so shatteringly crisp that I was grateful not to have company.

While its name suggests a “biker bar”, The Flying Hog is, in fact, an elegant restaurant specialising in beef and pork dishes slow-roasted to perfection in its wood-fired oven. Take the starter, a plate of petite bites laid out like a culinary map of Jeju island, a theme continued by the ensuing courses, which included local abalone cooked in butter, as well as black pig porchetta served with white kimchi and minced green chilli.

The omakase dinners at Yeoumul Jeju Cuisine Restaurant use hyperlocal ingredients such as seafood caught by the haenyeo. (Photo: PROD Studio, Park Jae Young)

Meanwhile, the Lounge serves speciality teas and coffees, including the lusciously dessert-like U-do Peanut Cream Latte. Yeoumul offers refined omakase dinners featuring seasonal ingredients and fresh seafood harvested by the haenyeo, like local hanchi squid, abalone in a sauce made from its liver and truffle, as well as an aromatic tile-fish broth with strips of yuzu, fresh peas, and burnt rice I could happily eat every day.

There are creative little touches: For example, the sashimi is presented with a little wodge of soy sauce-steeped seaweed perched on the edge of your dish.

There is a luxurious spa with four indoor and outdoor pools fed by the island’s volcanic springs, as well as an excellent family offering, including family rooms with playfully designed bunk beds, a very well-equipped kid’s club, and child-friendly activities like hiking and cooking experiences. Additionally, a traditional Korean spa will open in early 2024.

A farmer picking lemons grown in Jeju.

Just steps away from JW Marriott Jeju is the Olle Trail, 27 routes circumnavigating the island over 437km of coastline, village, and forest. Further afield, there are UNESCO World Heritage sites like Hallasan Mountain Natural Reserve, Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone, and the Geomunoreum Lava Tube System. And, of course, that inimitable haenyeo experience, which is just a few minutes’ drive from the resort. You better believe I’ll be back for those snails.

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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