Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea

[Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from photographer Brenda Paik Sunoo. IMOW is hosting an event featuring Brenda to celebrate the publication of her book Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea in San Francisco on Wednesday, June 29. You can find more information about the event here.]

From Brenda Paik Sunoo's "Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea"
I’m newly arrived to the shores of aging. And yes, a bit fearful of the unknown. After all, the eldest of 75 million American baby boomers began turning 60 in 2004. In some ways, aging is like free diving. In the sea, one’s mental and physical endurance is tested with a single breath. On land, one’s endurance is tested within a single lifetime. Quite simply, there’s no guaranteed safety net for either phenomenon. Aging and free diving both invite risks into mysterious and magical realms.

I was born on February 13, 1948. During my last few physical exams, I have repeatedly been warned to watch my cholesterol, supplement my diet with Vitamin D, monitor uterine fibroids, irrigate my sinuses, and practice Pilates due to a herniated disc. It’s no wonder that I’ve never dreamt of diving into the sea. That is, until I encountered the sea women of Jeju Island, Korea—known as haenyeo.

For centuries, these divers have faced the tempestuous tides of history and struggle for survival. Their intimate relationship to the land and sea, their shaman beliefs, and communal village life have protected them throughout their entire lives. In return, many have sustained a continuous life of purpose and resiliency well into their 90s.

Three years ago, I turned sixty. I began searching for inspiring role models---aging women who remained active until they died. Not women who died because they had regrettably aged. To a graying baby boomer like myself, these haenyeo stories became gleaming beaconsilluminating a wise, practical and fearless course.

Moon Tides is my homage to these women divers. I have organized the book according to seven aspects of their multi-dimensional lives. Each one reveals how the haenyeo have been “lifted by the wind and tides” of: Shamanism, Family, Survival, Suffering, Aging, Compassion and the Future. Through photos and translated interviews, my intention has been to represent the women (ages 39 – 93) in their own voices and work/life environments--not only in their rubber suits. They are, after all, grannies, wives, mothers, sisters, community volunteers, patriots, and social activists. To each other, lifelong friends.

Through their examples, I believe that one’s life purpose can be as continuous and infinite as the sea. For centuries, these Jeju divers have kept their lives afloat--in spite of risks and danger. As one granny told me, “If we didn’t, we couldn’t survive.”

Having been blessed to drift among them for for 7 months over the course of three years, I feel more comfortable with aging. Thankfully, one is never too old to be inspired by others. I have even begun to imagine my life as a septuagenarian and octogenarian. Granted, I will never become a working woman of the sea like the haenyeo. But if I do live well into my 90s, I hope to lead a continuous life of purpose as they have. Gray-haired, wrinkled and polyp-free.