June 24, 2011 10:46
U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens got a rare treat this week when she was given the opportunity to dive with Korea's famed haenyo, or female divers, on Jeju Island on Thursday.
The divers, who can stay under water for long periods of time without requiring the use of artificial breathing apparatus, are often the elder members or matriarchs of the family.
"Women divers symbolize the strength of Korean women," Stephens said after spending the day at a school dedicated to preserving the traditions of the haenyo in the heart of the sub-tropical island dubbed Korea's Hawaii.
They have become a part of Korea's history and they will be a part of its future, she added. The ambassador recalled her first trip to the island in 1976, which she described as a de facto tutorial in the tenacity of Korea's women divers.
It was heartening to see that a school dedicated to women divers has been established to preserve the great traditions of the haenyo, she said.
Stephens showed her swimming skills by splashing around with the haenyo in a wetsuit and goggles, but admitted she was still a novice diver when the flippers came on and it was time to hunt for abalones, octopuses and flatfish, which the veterans did for half an hour as the U.S. ambassador cheered in amazement.
She expressed disappointment at noting how some local traditions have disappeared over time on Jeju. Fortunately, the sheer strength of the women divers has remained unchanged, she said while tasting a variety of the island's fruits de la mer.
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