JEJU, South Korea: Every April within the fishing village of Jongdal, a day-long ritual takes place. Shamans make choices to the gods, praying for bountiful catches and the protection of those that enterprise out to sea.
Leading as much as the ceremony, a gaggle of ladies put together meals – to feed these in different realms, in addition to precise villagers. These ladies are “haenyeo”, the famed female divers of Jeju.
The COVID-19 pandemic that has battered the worldwide economic system spares nobody, not even these ladies.
“It has been a difficult year for haenyeo. Facing COVID-19 was like going to war except without weapons,” the pinnacle shaman Song Young-mi tells CNA.
THE MERMAIDS OF JEJU
Distinctive whistle-like cries ring out as, one after the other, heads emerge from the ocean. Carbon dioxide is expelled forcefully from the lungs of divers, essentially the most skilled of whom keep submerged for as much as three minutes.
Known because the mermaids of Jeju, these ladies deposit their catch in sacks tied to orange buoys, earlier than heading again down. Some of the divers go as deep as 20m, all on a single breath of air. And they do that for hours at a go.
“I’m not really how sure how long we stay out in the sea. But I think it is about four to five hours,” Ko Soon Hee inform us as she comes out of the water. Putting apart her diving masks and flippers, the wetsuit-clad 66-year-old drags an orange buoy crammed with the day’s catch – sea urchin – to a home the place the spiny creatures might be cleaned and bought.
Female divers like Ko have been round because the 17th century. The ladies are the household breadwinners, an anomaly in a rustic extra accustomed to a patriarchal construction.
At its peak within the Nineteen Sixties, there have been round 23,000 haenyeo on Jeju Island. Now there are 4,000 – most of them getting on in years. Ko, a sprightly sexagenarian, says she is taken into account one of many youthful ones: “That grandmother over there is 82. And she’s still very good.”
Divers CNA spoke to stated they make a mean of 150,000 gained (US$130) a day. The actually good ones pull in double that. “But remember, we don’t go out every day. Sometimes we don’t go out for days because of the weather,” says Mrs Ko. “That’s how we could live, and send our children to schools.”
IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC
For haenyeo, this yr’s conch season has been particularly arduous. Normally, most of those edible sea snails that they harvest discover prepared consumers in Japan. Not this yr.
“We were not able to export (conch) to Japan because when the staff come back, they have to be quarantined. And so we didn’t export,” says Mrs Ko. “It’s spawning season so harvesting conch is banned now, and we will start again in October. Hopefully, the situation will improve.”
Demand for different sorts of seafood has additionally plunged due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Government information reveals exports from Jeju’s fishing business fell 16 per cent from a yr previous to about US$30 million in 2020.
But much more than the coronavirus, it’s a plan by the Japanese authorities to launch contaminated water from a stricken nuclear plant that’s worrying these ladies.
“We are very afraid about Fukushima because it will hurt us. It will be harmful to us too. I don’t know if we will be able to export conch at all to Japan. We are all very worried. I guess we will just have to wait and see,” says Ko.
A diver subsequent to her voices her considerations: “Can we still dive? Will it be safe for us to go into the sea?”
Experts have warned that the radioactive water from the Fukushima plant might attain the waters off Jeju Island and the East Sea 200 days and 280 days respectively from the time Japan begins releasing the water.
Jeju’s governor Won Hee Ryong has known as on Japan to cope with the difficulty as a “human environmental security issue” amid worries by the islanders who liken Japan’s transfer to a dying sentence handed on the island’s fishery and tourism industries.
Many are frightened that Jeju’s status as a producer of a few of South Korea’s freshest seafood may very well be tainted by the wastewater from Fukushima.
One store proprietor who has been working a fish store for about 20 years at Dongmun Fish Market – Jeju’s largest – says she remembers how badly the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011 damage companies right here.
“After the disaster, all food imports from Japan were banned. And people refused to eat anything that came from Japan,” she says. “If that contaminated water enters our waters and especially here in Jeju since we are close, then we really won’t have anything to eat. That’s very worrying.”
More than ever, this yr’s ritual is seen as an essential one for the 1,200 residents of Jongdal, lots of them haenyeo.
“We hold this shamanistic ritual to pray that for all 12 months in a year we can all be safe and that there will be no accidents when we go out to sea,” says Hyun Ro-sa, the spouse of the village chief. She says all different villages round Jeju Island normally maintain their very own rituals like this for haenyeo.
In extra joyous pre-pandemic times, the day of the ritual would have taken on a festive really feel – villagers coming by for a meal ready by haenyeo themselves, or partaking in video games with different residents. But the specter of the coronavirus signifies that this yr, solely haenyeo are attending.
The ritual begins earlier than daybreak with the pinnacle shaman going to a cave web site to hope for the gods to return to the village that day. Then at 9am, a gaggle of 5 shamans take turns to repeatedly supply prayers to the gods.
Every every now and then, they break the routine with dance and tune – typically along with haenyeo – or kneel down in entrance of a desk set with meals choices, praying that the gods will hold them secure and provides them plentiful catches.
At one level, a shaman begins crying, declaring the empathy she has for all these ladies who threat their lives to assist their households. In between prayers, the ladies bow to the gods, typically placing down money as choices.
“We pray for haenyeo because their lives are important here. But not just them, fishermen and ship owners too. And we pray for those who have died at sea,” says the pinnacle shaman Song. “We may not be able to see them but all the gods of the sea attend these rituals.”
At round 5pm, the ritual attracts to shut as a shaman carries a ship crammed with meals out to sea. He lays it down gently and it sails away. The villagers hope it takes all evil spirits with it and in doing so, retains the waters secure for the mermaids of Jeju.