The morning I went out with the haenyeo, the “sea women” of Jeju Island, the misty sky was light gray and the sea dark and steely. Hundreds of years ago, women in these sea villages took up diving for abalone, sea urchin, and conch as a means of making a living. Today the tradition is almost extinct, and the remaining haenyeo, most of them in their 50s or 60s, have become minor celebrities.
When I first tried to introduce myself to them, they ignored me, and remained stone-faced as I took portraits of their walk out to the ocean. I followed them into the water in full scuba diving gear, but after one hour of shivering in the frigid waters I was done, nearly hypothermic. I went back to the hut to take a hot shower and make myself some tea. I watched them bob up and put their catch in the nets and disappear beneath the surface again and again.
Hours later, they swam back to the shore and pulled their hauls out of the water. Still in their wetsuits, they began methodically cleaning and prepping the seafood, talking among themselves. Out of nowhere, one of the women scooped out a sea urchin lobe and pressed it into my mouth. It was creamy and rich like ones I’ve had in restaurants, but there was a little seawater mixed in, adding a briny snap to the bite.
My face must have been a mixture of surprise and delight; the haenyeo burst into laughter. This continued, the women cleaning the seafood and occasionally feeding me—a slice of chewy abalone, conch, or more sea urchin, giggling each time. Finally, it was time to leave, so I pointed at the door and tried to express my gratitude in fumbling gestures. They smiled and went back to their work.