Dear Dragon God: Thanks for the bounty of seashells
“We pray to the Dragon God,” chanted Lee Jae-beom, 78, the oldest female diver on the island. “We pray for good health, no accidents and a good harvest for the year.”
They sat in a circle with the exorcist in the middle, bowing over and over.
The scene was played out a few weeks ago in the port of Hadong, 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) south of Jeju Island. Gapa island is located 1 kilometer north of Mara island, Korea’s southernmost territory. Among its 314 residents, 164 are women, of whom 76 are professional shell divers. Most women of working age ― and some older ones, such as Ms. Lee ― work as divers, while the men mostly go fishing for sea beam and squid.
Ms. Lee’s life revolves around the sea. While younger female divers take boats out to sea to make deep dives, she collects sea urchins and fusiforme seaweed from coastal waters. As she grew older, Ms. Lee found it harder to hold her breath for long periods, and for the last 15 years has worked in the shallower waters between the rocks. She still makes 1 million won a month in pocket money.
Ms. Lee learned diving from her mother when she was nine years old and Korea was still occupied by Japan. She followed her father to Tsushima Island and came back to Gapa when she was 17 years old. She has worked as a diver ever since.
“I’ve come close to death many times. I had my feet caught in a fishing net once and fought like crazy, but I survived only because another diver nearby rescued me,” Ms. Lee said.
The money she earned from diving was spent raising three sons and two daughters, one of whom is also a diver. Kim Gyeong-sun, 48, followed in her mother’s footsteps after her father, a fisherman, passed away 20 years ago and the family faced serious financial problems.
Divers like Ms. Kim learn to swim in deep water a kilometer away from the island, and work from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For half the month, they collect turban shells; at times in which demand for the shells are high, a diver can easily make 3 million won ($3,125) to 4 million won from two weeks’ work.
“There isn’t any work on the island that offers that kind of money,” Ms. Kim said.
“Marine products like turban shells and fusiforme seaweed collected by divers are of good quality and are exported to Japan,” said Jin Myeong-hwan, a Gapa island town official. “People on the island make 500 million won to 700 million won a year.”
Although most divers don’t want their children to carry on their work, Ms. Kim has sent her daughter, 15, to Jeju Island every year to learn how to dive.
“Diving for such a long time has made my back and legs ache constantly,” Ms. Kim said. “The rubber diving suit is too tight.”
Gang Wol-shin, 41, the youngest diver in the island, has not taught her three daughters how to dive. Ms. Gang never went to high school and started diving to help her family financially.
“This is a hard work, but I will continue to work until my children go to college,” Ms. Gang said. “I want them to be as educated as other children.”
Gapa Island is not as well-known as Mara Island although it is slightly closer to the mainland. Hendrik Hamel, the Dutch sailor and the first Westerner recorded as having visited Korea, washed ashore on Jeju Island in 1653. According to a journal he wrote after living on the island for some time, he name Gapa Island “Quelpart.”
by Yang Seung-cheol