Legend of the deep-sea divers

Breathe deep ... the haenyeo prepare to dive.
Breathe deep ... the haenyeo prepare to dive. 

Margaret Turton counts the tough women hunters of Jeju Island among its most impressive natural wonders.

No two people will agree immediately on what makes the perfect island or what qualities define the world's greatest natural wonder. But if novelty value holds any sway, Jeju island - with its tough diving women, black, sandy beaches, lava-tube systems and volcanic cones - can deliver high-octane adventure in locations of great natural beauty, an hour by plane from South Korea's capital, Seoul.

It is quite something to hike to the top of a dormant volcano or explore what is officially recognised as the longest lava tunnel in the world. As well, Jeju boasts about its wind. This is not an idle boast, as paragliders will tell you. Irrespective of wind direction, launch sites are plentiful and the dormant Mount Hallasan and 368 satellite volcanoes are a wonderful sight from the air, as are the rolling hills and the rugged black coast.

Jeju's natural wonders are sufficient to see it placed among current finalists for the New7Wonders of Nature, a global online search, judged on November 11, to identify the seven most wondrous natural sites in the world. Finalists include the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru. For me, though, the most unique and powerful symbols of this South Korean island are Jeju's legendary women divers, called the haenyeo: free-wheeling, free-diving, modern-day hunter-gatherers.

It's mid-afternoon on a black lava beach beneath the 5000-year-old Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone. One by one, the haenyeo gather on the shore. Word went out that they might not dive today because of treacherous currents. But here they come.

I had formed a picture in my mind's eye; they won't look like mermaids. They are all past their prime, with skills and a distinctive life the island's young women no longer aspire to. And yet the decades spent harvesting the produce of the sea in harsh conditions and without the aid of any breathing equipment haven't exhausted these hard-working women.

Today this spot illustrates their need for toughness and physical strength: wind, rough basalt rocks underfoot, swirling mist, gloom.

The haenyeo hold special status in the patriarchal society of Korea. This has been so since the days when Japanese pirates and invaders added to the existing perils of deep-sea fishing by Jeju men and the male population plummeted. The haenyeo stepped up to head the households. They gained autonomy and, as the principal wage-earners, economic independence.

They show a boisterous confidence as they engage with onlookers gathered on this stark, black beach. The youngest haenyeo here today is 58, the oldest 75. We hear how their diving expertise was passed down from their mothers and grandmothers, who, in turn, learnt from theirs and so on, as far back as anyone can remember.

From an early age, they were tutored in breathing techniques that enable them to extend time spent underwater. They were shown how to recognise rip currents, avoid shark attack and, significantly, the importance of working together as a team. Consequently, the haenyeo are a tight group of specialised workers that no man is ever permitted to join.

Song Gyeong-ja, an energetic 70-year-old haenyeo, produces a microphone. She's a natural performer and, after a few preliminary hoots, her companions fall into line and start to sing. By the look of their moves it's a seafaring song, a point confirmed by the handling of an improvised rudder by the oldest haenyeo. The 75-year-old goes through her paces with a steely resolve; it's clear she doesn't surrender to flippancy easily.

When their singing ends, the haenyeo don their masks and plunge into the sea. Because of the rough conditions, it's more a show dive, really. They return 20 minutes later with a reasonable catch, though nothing like the huge hauls of conch, abalone, octopus and sea cucumber gathered during diving competitions held hereabouts. Still, they land shellfish, an octopus and what looks like sea squirt, sac-like filter-feeders that squirt water from two openings when touched.

This brief but exciting encounter has drawn a hugely positive response from what is now a crowd. And we're fired up for our next pursuit - reaching the tuff cone of Seongsan Ilchulbong.

I'll admit the ascent is pretty easy. Our only challenge is the need to be up there and back within an hour. Our time on Jeju is brief.

At breakneck speed, we've already seen columnar-jointed lava rock formations at Jungmun Daepo Coast, the Jeju Folk Village Museum and the scenic coastal area around Seopjikoji, where we enjoy a degustation-style lunch at the contemporary art restaurant, Mint. Seopjikoji's fields and lighthouse offered far-ranging views along the eastern shore - particularly from Mint, since it's located in Japanese architect Tadao Ando's stone, glass and concrete Glass House Building, which creates an impression of being suspended over the sea.

All this plus the haenyeo by mid-afternoon.

By now we're more than ready for the 180-metre high views from Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone. Seongsan means "gigantic castle", ilchulbong means "sunset peak". As the easternmost point of the island, it is first to greet the dawn. This explains its popularity and a paved and stepped ascent of about 500 steps - but they're easy, so nobody's counting.

Up close, the basin-like interior of the tuff cone is almost pastoral - a lush, green meadow in sharp contrast with fiery beginnings about 5000 years ago, when a volcano erupted on the shallow ocean floor. The mixing of sea water and the hot ascending magma, followed by the deposition of moist volcanic ash, produced precipitous peaks atop steep slopes.

From the summit the view is stupendous, even with a gloomy sky. More than that, the sedimentary layers of the slopes provide a clear base for scientific research on hydro-volcanoes. Seongsan Ilchulbong and another eight geological sites on the island were designated UNESCO Global Geoparks last year. This makes Jeju the only place in the world with three UNESCO certifications (a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve was announced in 2002 and a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2007). The latter nominates Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone; Mount Hallasan, with its lake-filled crater, rock formations and waterfalls; and Geomunoreum, which has a lava-tube system of caves, including the spectacular Manjanggul Lava Tube.

We have just enough time to explore Manjanggul, the longest lava tube in the world.

About 300,000 years ago, basaltic lava flowed like a highway from a satellite volcano east of Mount Hallasan. The outer surface cooled and hardened as the inner lava flowed on, leaving an open tunnel. The Manjanggul Lava Tube extends almost eight kilometres.

We see the lava flowlines on its walls, illustrating how much and how often lava has flowed through Manjanggul. The stalactites above us formed as the lava ceiling melted. Underfoot, ropy lava formed as the next hot flow pushed up a hardening deposit from a previous flow.

About a kilometre into the tube, a massive lava column - the largest in the world - stands frozen in the act of pouring through the ceiling from a second lava tube above Manjanggul. It is impressive, considering the event took place hundreds of thousands of years ago.

No less impressive - though much more vulnerable - are the haenyeo. This might well be the last generation of women diving off the black coast of Jeju.

Margaret Turton travelled courtesy of Korea Tourism Organisation and Asiana Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Asiana Airlines flies from Sydney to Seoul Incheon International Airport (10hr, 30min) and from Seoul Gimpo Domestic Airport to Jeju Island (1hr 5min). A low-season return airfare costs about $1620, including taxes, from Sydney; Melbourne passengers pay about $300 more and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. An overnight stay in Seoul is required on the outbound journey. Transfers between Seoul airports cost 3300 won ($3).

Eating and sightseeing there

The haenyeo divers are not professional performers — they dive for their livelihood — but they dive most days at 1.30pm and 3pm from the area in front of Haenyeo House on the Umutgae shore beneath Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone (Sunrise Peak). Contact the Seongsan Ilchulbong office in advance to check on weather conditions; phone +82 64 783 1135. The entry fee to watch the diving is 2000 won. See //bit.ly/joThqN.

Try a degustation fusion-style lunch at Mint; 107 Seopjikejiro, Seogwipo-si, for 32,000 won; phone +82 64 731 7000.

Jungmun Daepo columnar-jointed lava fields are open daily 8am-6.30pm; entry 2000 won.

Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone is open daily from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset (about 4.30am-8pm); entry 2000 won.

Manjanggul Lava Tube is open daily 9am-6pm; entry 2000 won.

Jeju Folk Village Museum has opening hours that differ by season; entry 7000 won; see www.jejufolk.com.

Staying there

In Seoul, Best Western Hotel Kukdo is a deluxe hotel located near Dongdaemun market in the eastern area of Seoul, with rooms from 198,000 won; see hotelkukdo.com.

On Jeju Island, the four-star Suites Hotel Jeju is located in the centre of the Jungmun Tourist Resort, the main resort area. Rooms from 242,000 won; see suites.co.kr.

More information

The Korea Tourism Organisation's recommended three- to five-day Jeju Island itineraries are in the Korea Travel Guide, available free by emailing visitkorea@knto.org.au. See visitkorea.or.kr.

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