CHAPTER 11. Our Discovery of Flat-Footed Lake Dwellers.
I have to admit I have had considered this myself. And I have to admit in researching mermaid myths, there are many sightings where people have claimed to have seen a woman with a tail of a fish. But in the end I have rejected this idea simply because the evidence of a fully aquatic human is so weak while there is far more evidence to support the idea that mermaids are simply woman divers. Also it is doubtful in the time available that humans could evolve into a fully aquatic creature.
Yet I am not going to reject this idea completely, simply because it is a nice idea. So I would like to put forward the reasons why it might be possible, without taking it too seriously.
Clearly it is very unlikely a human can evolve to have a fish tail, simply because a human is a mammal and not a fish. But a dolphin is a mammal, so could a human evolve to have a tail like a dolphin? Again no, human beings do not have tails, dolphins evolved from a semi-aquatic animal similar to the beaver or platypus both of which have large flat tails that use them to propel themselves through the water. Over evolutionary time these tails changed to become more efficient until they look like fish tails.
So if we want to look to what a fully aquatic human would look like, we have to look at the seal. A seal like a human doesn’t have a tail, and so it uses its hind legs to propel itself through the water. With its hind legs evolving to now look something like the feet of a water-bird with webbing between its toes. The seal then can move its body side to side to propel itself along like a fish.
It is an open secret that Olympic champion swimmers like Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe, have either large hands or feet to help propel themselves through the water. So an aquatic human would likewise evolve very large feet and perhaps webbed toes and end up having feet that look like flippers. Which would be a great help in the water but a handicap on land, as anyone will know who have attempted to walk on land with flippers on their feet.
It is doubtful if an aquatic human would evolve very large hands, simply because large hands are a help in swimming on the surface of the water but can create a lot of drag when swimming underwater. Also an aquatic human will survive by using their hands to pick shellfish of the bottom of the sea, and so will not be using them all the time for forward propulsion. This means, if a fully aquatic human did evolve the only difference it would have from ordinary humans it that it has large flipper like feet. Which would be a big advantage in the water but a handicap out of the water.
In spite of this such a human being my still look like a traditional mermaid. As previously pointed out in many mermaid reports of the past the mermaid has two tails which will be the mermaids legs. Also in the sport of swimming there is a difference of opinion whether it is quicker to swim using a butterfly kick, that is keeping your feet together, or kicking your legs alternatively like in overarm swimming. So it could be that some aquatic humans did keep their legs together while swimming and this would look like a fish tail.
So if a branch of humans evolved like this they clearly don’t exist today. There has been very few reports of mermaids in the 20th century, and these reports are doubtful. If an aquatic human still exists it would have to be fully aquatic, as it would have to be independent of land. Simply because there are very few beaches in the world today where there are not people, so any fully aquatic human coming onto a beach will be spotted by ordinary humans. This aquatic human will then have to be so frightened of ordinary humans that they will stay out of sight when they spot any boats or ships. They would have to be able to survive drinking seawater all the time. And be able to sleep at sea without drowning. They could perhaps feed of shellfish and seaweed in shallow seas but today coastal waters are full of human beings so they will be spotted and perhaps photographed. To avoided land humans they might go far out into the oceans, but there they would have to swim fast enough to catch fish.
Even if an aquatic human evolved to be able to survive on the open ocean. Nowadays there are large fishing ships that put out very large fishing nets that catch everything including dolphins. If this is the case, then surely these nets will also catch any aquatic humans swimming in the oceans.
If it is very doubtful that a fully aquatic human exists today, could there have been a fully aquatic human in the past that became extinct? Now this is a real possibility considering that men have a history of committing genocide against any other race that looks slightly different from themselves. Any aquatic human that is not completely independent of land will be at a disadvantage if it meets any hostile ordinary human beings on land. So it might be that any branch of humans that became more aquatic than ordinary humans may have been wiped out by men simply because they looked strange and different. This could be the case of the duck feet people mentioned in Appendix One.
As mentioned before it seems that on many Pacific islands there is archaeological evidence that there were people living there before the Polynesians arrived. On these remote islands where people lived mainly on seafood, humans could have become more aquatic than normal humans, but were then wiped out when ordinary humans like the Polynesians arrived on these islands. Certainly the Polynesians do have mermaid legends and this might be the origins of them.
But this is all very much speculation; the only evidence of this is mermaid myths and that is all. Whereas the evidence that mermaids are simply women divers is far stronger. The only way something like this can be proven is if skeletons of ancient human are discovered with large flipper like feet.
A fake documentary on this theory was made by Animal Planet called
MERMAIDS: THE BODY FOUND
It mentioned the Aquatic Ape Theory, and gave some other interesting information but it was hard to know what was fake and what was true in it.
[Photograph by Fosco Maraini, from his book, Hekura, The Diving Girl's Island, of an ama diver on boat preparing to dive.]
When I first done my blog I had a lot of Ama photographs but none of Haenyo divers but recently this has changed. So what I have done is collected them all together and put them in the Appendix.
<Haenyo foraging for marine food in her wet-suit. From the film"Song of Haenyo" (South Korea 2006) by Minjoo Lee
The following is is some of the comments she makes on haenyo divers
The haenyo, literally meaning "sea women", are female divers in the Korean province of Jeju. They are representative of the matriarchal family structure of Jeju.
Unfortunately she has repeated, male chauvinist Korean put-downs of the haenyo women. Diving wasn't the lowest pay jobs because why would Korean men in the past, stay at home and look after the house and children, if they could earn better money elsewhere? We certainly know that women divers were the main breadwinners long before the 19th century. As previously mentioned there were once haenyo divers on the mainland but women divers were banned by law. As explained on the, UNESCO World Cultural Heritage web-site about haenyo divers (Which they used the spelling Jamnyeo.)-
They didn't limit their diving skills and activities to Jeju Island only. Since 1895, as they developed their diving skills into original jobs, they started to migrate to many foreign places on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. As they have seasonally gone abroad or to the Korean peninsula to earn money at sea, they have contributed support to large portions of the island economy as a whole, by sending or bringing cash to their hometowns. Their migrations and settlements extended all over East Asia, to many areas on the Korean Peninsula, 10 places in Japan, 2 places in mainland China, and one place in Russia. In all these places, Jamnyeos have been recognized for their special skills in harvesting sea products of high economic value.
As we can see haenyo divers have been an important conribution to Jeju Island community. This is why haenyo divers have survived on Jeju but were successfully banned on the mainland.
The article goes on to show how even more important is haenyo diving is to Mara Island. (A small island near Jeju Island.)
It is very interesting that the status of women on Mara Island, where fisheries provide the sole occupation, is superior to men's both in the home and in the larger society. This status derives from the economic importance of their achievements at sea.
Haenyo women diving off a raft. From web-site. -
Haenyo seeming to be prepared to dive off rocks into the sea. Photographed in 1966, web-site.-
Women divers head home at sunset after diving for abalone and other shellfish. Provided by the Jeju Photography Club and the Jeju Haenyeo Museum. From web-site.
The Hae Nyeo of the South Korean island of Cheju are tough, female breath-hold divers, who for centuries have made a living by gathering food from the sea bed. They will dive to depths of 20m for hours on end, with nothing more than the most simple equipment and the right mental attitude. Kurt Amsler watched them at work
At the top of a rocky cliff on the South Korean island of Cheju, several people sit motionless in the lotus position, meditating. They are dressed in shimmering black neoprene, white cotton head covers and old-fashioned, oval masks.
These are the Hae Nyeo female divers, who practise a tough, dangerous profession that has continued for centuries. After meditating they will enter the sea to dive, breath-holding, for shells, tunicates, octopus, crabs, seaweeds - anything on the seabed that is edible.
They hardly ever use boats, simply jumping in from the rocky coastline and swimming sometimes long distances to get to the reefs they wish to hunt.
Today, though, they have a lift aboard the small fishing boat in which I sit. I cannot wait to watch and document the work of these legendary divers, whose way of life is threatened because the young are becoming less willing to take up the Hae Nyeo diving mantle.
As our boat nears the cliff to pick them up, the women take their time to finish their meditation, before getting up. Some make guttural sounds to urge those slow to move.
Once aboard, the oldest diver exchanges a few words with our skipper, to say that the women wish to dive on a reef about 300m out from the shore.
Her voice fits her features: harsh and hard, weathered from a life in the sea. The women's faces are tanned by wind and salt water, and there are grey streaks in their hair. They have friendly and open features, and dark eyes full of life.
The equipment of the Hae Nyeo is primitive. A 3mm neoprene wet suit has replaced the traditional white cotton dress, but the head protection and primitive mask with simple elastic ties maintain ancient habits.
They place their weightbelts well above their midriffs, to give them more weight resistance against which to lift items under water. A hip belt holds a flat piece of metal used to prise shells from rocks.
The prey of the day goes into a buoyed net basket with stiffened circular opening, which also helps support the divers when they swim out to their chosen site.
Before diving, contrary to any diving theory, the women put a wax like waterproof substance in their ears. We arrive at the chosen spot and the women get into action quickly. The nets are thrown overboard and the female divers jump into the water right behind them.
They spread out in all directions and observe the ground through their masks before diving down into the blue at regular time intervals.
It is at least 2 minutes before each diver's head shows up at the surface again. And each time they surface, the divers make a melodious whistling sound - a unique technique of breathing and preparing for their next plunge.
The South Korean underwater world in which the divers hunt is richly diverse. Cold water kelp forests grow on volcanic rocks close to tropical soft corals. Animals, too, contrast notably. Exotic lionfish, for instance, are commonly found next to Atlantic rock grouper.
I enter the water with my camera. A Hae Nyeo diver hovers at the surface 15m above me, and raises her head to take her last deep breath before shooting down head first.
Quick and nimble, fishlike, she glides over rocks, under overhangs and squeezes into narrow openings. Her well trained eyes quickly pick out wanted prey - shells and starfish - and she uses her piece of metal rapidly to detach them. It is amazing how long this woman can hold her breath and work hard under water. Back at the surface she puts the prey in the circle net before heading straight back down for another attempt.
For an hour I observe the Hae Nyeo. Their physical performance is absolutely astonishing, each female diver heading down to depths of up to 20m about 30 times over. The circle nets gradually fill up.
Nowadays, the Hae Nyeo divers are well respected and honoured, but this was not always so. No documents exist about the Hae Nyeo, because historically records of them were forbidden.
The women were not accepted by high society. They were thought to be uneducated, wild, stubborn, much too independent, and the vocabulary they used was considered outlandish. As if this was not enough, they dared to dive into the sea half naked!
The Hae Nyeo have, though, maintained a special community of their own. Their appearance and vocabulary still reflect the fact that they are tough and self-confident women.
Men are not welcome in their community, at least not in their work. Their strenuous and dangerous way of diving, of up to 4 or 5 hours every day, has united them very closely.
Despite their abilities, the female divers do get into trouble. High waves and currents can lead them to complete exhaustion, and through an interpreter I learn that one still-active 70-year-old diver has lost "many" of her female companions to the sea.
Some, she says, had become stuck while trying to get a shell of extraordinary size out of an opening; and others had been taken away by strong currents.
The worst accident the old female diver remembers is a shark attack, in which a female diver who must have hurt herself badly and lost a lot of blood was tracked down by a big shark and killed.
Soon, says the elderly diver, the female divers will have disappeared for good. Despite the good money to be earned from selling seafood, young girls nowadays don't want to continue the breath-hold hunting traditions of the Hae Nyeo. A way of life that has existed for centuries could soon be gone.
Huchiun shellmound in Emeryville, being bulldozed in the 1920s. The immense mound was 60 feet high and 350 feet wide. It formerly held at least four historical levels of burial sites going back at least 2,500 years.
More about the cultures that created these shell mounds
Bijago people, (see Chapter Two)
On African Island, women choose the spouses
Feb. 3, 2007
Like all men on Orango Island, Carvadju Jose Nananghe knew exactly what it meant. Refusing was not an option. His heart pounding, he lifted the steaming fish to his lips, agreeing in one bite to marry the girl.
“I had no feelings for her,” said Nananghe, now 65. “Then when I ate this meal, it was like lightning. I wanted only her.”
In this archipelago of 50 islands of pale blue water off the western rim of Africa, it’s women, not men, who choose. They make their proposals public by offering their grooms-to-be a dish of distinctively prepared fish, marinated in red palm oil. It’s the equivalent of a man bending on one knee and offering a woman a diamond ring, except that in one of the world’s matriarchal cultures, it’s women that do the asking, and once they have, men are powerless to say no.
To have refused, explained the old man remembering the day half a century ago, would have dishonored his family—and in any case, why would he want to choose his own wife?
“Love comes first into the heart of the woman,” explained Nananghe. “Once it’s in the woman, only then can it jump into the man.”
But the treacherous tides and narrow channels that have long kept outsiders out of these remote islands are no longer holding back the modern world. Young men are increasingly leaving Orango, located 38 miles (60 kilometers) off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, a country in West Africa. They find jobs carrying luggage for tourist hotels on the archipelago’s more developed islands; others collect oil from the island’s abundant palm trees and sell it on the African mainland.
They return bringing with them a new form of courtship, one which their elders find deeply unsettling.
“Now the world is upside down,” complained 90-year-old Cesar Okrane, his eyes obscured by a cloud of cataracts. “Men are running after women, instead of waiting for them to come to them.”
Standing in the shade of a grass roof, he holds himself upright with the help of a tall spear and explains that when he was young he took extra care to maintain his physique, learned to dance and practiced writing poetry—all ways in which men can try to attract women, without overtly making the first move.
In recent years, young men have become increasingly bold, going so far as to openly propose marriage—a dangerous turn, say traditionalists.
“The choice of a woman is much more stable,” explains Okrane. “Rarely were there divorces before. Now, with men choosing, divorce has become common.”
With records not readily available, it’s unclear how many divorces there were earlier, but islanders agree that there are significantly more now than in the years when men waited patiently for a proposal on a plate. They waited some more, as their brides-to-be then set out for the eggshell-white beaches encircling the island, looking for the raw materials with which to build their new house.
Women built all the grass-covered huts here, dragging driftwood back from the ocean to use as poles, cutting blankets of blond grass to weave into roofs and shaping the pink mud underfoot into bricks. Only once the house is built, a process that takes at least four months, can the couple move in and their marriage be considered official.
There are matrilineal cultures in numerous pockets of the world, including in other parts of Africa, as well as in China’s Yunnan province and in northeastern Thailand, said anthropologist Christine Henry, a researcher at France’s elite National Center for Scientific Research, or CNRS. But the unquestioned authority given to women in matters of the heart on this island is unique—“I don’t know of it happening anywhere else,” said Henry, who has written a book on the customs of the archipelago.
That things are changing is evident in the material chosen for the island’s newest house: concrete. It was erected by paid laborers, not local women.
Although priestesses still control the island’s relationship with the spirit world, their clout is waning, as churches sown by missionaries have taken root.
“When I get married it will be in a church, wearing a white dress and a veil,” said 19-year-old Marisa de Pina, who strikes a modern pose under the blond grass of her family’s hut, wearing tight Capri pants and sequined sandals.
She said the Protestant church she attends has taught her that it is men, not women, that should make the first move, and so she plans to wait for a man to approach her. To make her point, the teenager pops into her hut and returns holding a worn copy of the New Testament, its pages stuffed with post-it notes, letters and business cards.
It’s a decision that has caused strife inside the mud walls of her family’s house.
Like her niece, Edelia Noro wears store-bought clothes instead of the grass skirts still favored by some older women. She, too, attends church. But she said she doesn’t see why these trappings of modern life should alter the system of courtship.
More than two decades ago, she set off for the closest beach looking for the ingredients with which to propose to the man she loved.
Noro waited for the tide to recede, then dug in the wet sand for clams, collecting them in a woven basket. She was embarrassed, she said, that she was too poor to afford a proper meal of fish and could only offer her groom-to-be what she could gather with her own hands. So after preparing the dish, she placed it in front of him, then ran and hid behind a tree, peeking out to see his reaction.
“He did not hesitate and ate right away. I could see the love shining in his eyes,” she said, a glow spreading across her cheeks.
Although the island’s unique customs may be fading, there are still pockets of resistance. Often, it’s women that lure men back into the fold of ancient ways.
Now 23, Laurindo Carvalho first spotted the girl when he was 13. He worked in a tourist hotel, wore jeans, and owned a cell phone and thought of himself as modern and so he thought he could turn tradition on its head, asking the girl to marry him. With the wave of a hand, she rejected him.
Six years passed and one day, when both were 19, he heard a knock at his door. Outside, his love stood holding out a plate of freshly caught fish, a coy smile on her face.
Carvalho still wears sandblasted jeans and flip-flops bearing the Adidas logo, but he now sees himself as embedded in the village’s matriarchal fiber.
“I learned the hard way that here, a man never approaches a woman,” he said.
BUA LADIES BAN FROM FISHING IN THE NUDE : AN ANCIENT PRACTICE WHICH HAS EXISTED FOR GENERATIONS:WHAT YOU THINK BAN SE KUA??
Teresia Diranamu, 73, the head of mataqali Nasava ù the clan that has traditional fishing rights over Vurevure ù said the area was a sacred fishing ground and was only fished on special occasions. The women needed permission from the Nasava clan head before they could fish.
Over the centuries women had abided by a special rule ù they must fish in the nude.
The fishing spot is at the mouth of one of the many creeks that lead out of the swamp and link up with the Nabunikadamu River.
It's said to be tawa or occupied by a spirit. At the heart of the naked fishing ritual is a spirit god that villagers believe is the guardian of the springs who is appeased by nudity.
"We believe, if women wear clothes they won't catch any fish," Ms Diranamu said.
However, clan leader Naniudrau Iliesa Ratusaki said the decision to forbid women from fishing naked augured well for the village's development.
"This practice belongs to the dark ages, it's time to move on with our lives," he said.
"So the women have been informed that the practice must stop.
Korea's “Henyo” Divers
Masters of The Sea -- But 2nd Class on Land
By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer
SHINYANG, South Korea -- One day before bearing her third child, Kim Chun Hwa made a small concession to maternity. She took a break from her grueling routine of diving in the frigid waters for sea urchin, octopus and abalone.
She was back in her wet suit two weeks later, though, leaving her infant daughter at home to join other village women harvesting the fertile seabeds with primitive tools and lung power.
That was 13 years ago, not long after the heyday of the henyo, literally the "women of the sea." Kim, now 51, is one of a dwindling number of rugged women who still dive for a living from the coastal villages of South Korea's Cheju Island.
Mermaids or Amazons
They are likened to mermaids, or Amazons. They are romanticized by feminists, fussed over by anthropologists and exploited by the government as tourist bait. But few of the henyo -- pronounced "hen-yaw" -- have any illusions about the backbreaking, ear-popping, women-only vocation that has been handed down through the generations on idyllic Cheju Island.
It is a difficult life, and Kim does not wish it on her daughters, even if the alternative is to forgo the relative economic independence she has enjoyed and submit themselves fully to South Korea's mainstream culture of male domination. She would not mind if diving women disappeared altogether.
"I'd have no regrets," Kim said over a dinner of sea urchin soup and spicy stewed octopus, part of the day's catch. "We all feel the same way. Why should we be sorry to see something go away that causes so much hardship? If I didn't need the money, I'd quit today."
Indeed, a close look at the lives of the Cheju divers reveals a not-so-liberated state of affairs, illustrating how daunting a task it can be for a woman to assert herself in South Korea's conservative, Confucian society.
Although the henyo are usually the primary breadwinners in their families, they are obliged to contribute 10% to 20% of their income to support patrilineal ancestor rituals, presided over by the comparatively indolent men of the village.
The women have little control over what is left, deferring to husbands, sons and other male relatives on major financial decisions, and sometimes retaining only a limited part of the assets they accumulate. The divers may enjoy far more autonomy than their counterparts on the mainland, but they have little chance to flaunt it.
Despite her prowess at sea, Kim's very identity on land is derived from her oldest son, Deok Il, 22, whom she raised alone after her marriage broke up and whom she put through technical college. In keeping with traditional mores, she is known in the village as "Deok Il's mother." The son is the legal head of her household.
A myth of gender-bending dates back to the earliest foreign accounts of Cheju, a volcanic island 50 miles off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula used by Yi Dynasty authorities as a penal colony.
William Franklin Sands, a U.S. consular official stationed in Seoul at the turn of the century, noted in his book, "Undiplomatic Memories," that Cheju -- known to him as Quelpart -- was marked as "the Isle of Women" on old Chinese and Japanese maps. He described the women's diving skills in admiring terms and left a somewhat ludicrous record of their social dominance.
"Man, in this lost corner of the world, was an inferior being; the woman was everything," Sands wrote. "It was more like a matriarchy, a real Amazon community, for the women were always ready to assert their power and uphold it by force."
The idea still persists that Cheju has a kind of reverse-role subculture, a matriarchy that belies the male chauvinism of Korean society. So Yong Park, a Korean-American anthropology student who came to Shinyang to do field work in 1987, said she had planned to study how the village was making a transition from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society. She was disappointed.
"As it turned out, there wasn't anything like a matriarchy here at all," Park said. "I found that out on the first day."
Park learned that the men were running things, even the fishing cooperative that sold the women's catch, and took a 10% cut. Maybe a few of them watched the children while their wives went diving, but in general the men of Shinyang tended to be "pompous and self-important," Park said.
"It's a highly Confucian society with a pocket of women's culture off to the side," she said.
Yet Park became enthralled by the earthy sisterhood of the divers. For a year she listened to their songs and monitored their banter as they gathered in the shelter of stone fences to change into black rubber wet suits in the morning and clean their catch in the evening. She noted their complaints about rough seas, cold water, bad husbands, aching bodies. Vulgar jokes were second only to talk of kosaeng: suffering, the hard life.
"The henyo lead two separate lives," said Han Lim Hoa, a novelist in Cheju City who grew up in a neighboring village and has written several books on the divers. "When they are diving, they have their own social order based on camaraderie among women. But when they go home, they re-enter the world of men. There's no carry-over from one to the other."
On a recent afternoon, Kim, or Deok Il's mother, and a group of a dozen other divers had just spent about five hours in the water and were busy crushing purple sea urchins with blunt knives and scooping the orange meat into plastic containers.
Asked why men eschew diving, the women had a variety of answers. The men are a little lazy. They are less tolerant of the cold water. It never occurred to them to dive. They aren't as tough as women.
"They don't want to dive because they're afraid they'll shrivel up," said one henyo, eliciting cackles of laughter from the women squatting on the rocky beach.
It was a fair catch that day. Deok Il's mother figured she hauled in $36 worth of sea urchin and shellfish, which is about average. She makes $600 to $700 diving 20 days a month, considerably more than the wages of many factory workers in South Korea and nearly twice what her eldest daughter makes as a nurse's aide in Seoul. But she is concerned about the size of the urchins, which are getting smaller, a sign that they are being depleted.
"I'm worried," said Deok Il's mother, who started diving at age 13. "But if I don't catch them now, I won't make any money at all."
Indeed, the overall catch is declining for Cheju's divers, from about 25,000 tons in 1985 to 21,000 tons last year, according to a report by Yonhap News Service.
With prime seabeds being depleted, women are swimming farther out from shore with their Styrofoam buoys, and diving deeper for the elusive abalone and other game. Dives of about 20 feet used to suffice; now women are going as deep as 40 or 50 feet, staying under for several minutes at a time.
The henyo are also getting older, making it an increasingly hazardous line of work. The Yonhap report suggested that serious accidents, some of them fatal, have been increasing dramatically in recent years. The women say more and more divers have become addicted to painkillers trying to cope with the debilitating effects of water pressure on their ears and sinuses. Many, like Deok Il's mother, are going deaf.
"Unless we really do something for the divers, they are endangered," said Cho Hae Joang, an anthropologist at Yonsei University who has studied the henyo.
Because their daughters no longer join the trade, their numbers are declining rapidly. The divers' ranks peaked at about 24,000 around 1970, but now officials count only 6,313, and 40% of them are over 50. Shinyang, a village with a population of about 1,250, has 80 divers. The youngest is in her early 30s, the oldest is over 70. ("Grandmother" divers stay near the surface gathering seaweed.)
Men Fight Back
The men of Shinyang, meanwhile, are trying to buck a reputation for idleness. But old attitudes die hard.
One man told Park he thought women were better suited for intensive farm labor, which is expected even of the divers, because "their knees are specially designed for squatting." Another male villager suggested that women are natural divers because they are endowed with more body fat to ward off hypothermia in the water.
But Kim Yong Wook, 40, head of Shinyang's village youth association, who runs a small variety store and grows hot-house pineapples, said that Cheju men are becoming industrious these days. They might even try their hand at diving, he said, if more modern, scientific techniques could be applied, such as scuba gear, which is currently outlawed.
"We've been treated unfairly," he said. "I think the anthropologists have looked at things from a very superficial point of view. It's not that men were lazy, they simply had nothing to do in the past. It was like unemployment."
With their conspicuous economic status, the diving women of Cheju have become particularly attuned to handling the fragile masculine ego. Expertise in this area was clearly demonstrated when a male reporter recently donned a wet suit and joined Deok Il's mother and her group in the water, where the women hyperventilated with the eerie whistling sounds that are characteristic of the henyo.
Unable to keep pace with the superbly conditioned athletes, the visitor flailed pathetically at the reef trying to hook sea urchins without destroying them -- and ran out of breath every time. Before he knew it, though, Deok Il's mother had secreted a dozen urchins in his game net, offering him a chance to save face.
Another diver staged an abalone catch for the inept man, prompting him to pry the mollusk loose with a blade she had inserted, then rise to the surface with the prize in hand as she orchestrated cheers by the other women. For a fleeting, blind moment, he was flush with a sense of accomplishment.
Schoenberger, Times' Tokyo correspondent, was recently on assignment in South Korea.
GRAPHIC: Photo, Kim Chun Hwa on her way to work, and a plate adorned with young women in white suits that is sold to tourists who visit Cheju Island. KARL SCHOENBERGER / Los Angeles Times; Map, South Korea, GEORGE CAREY / Los Angeles Times
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