More than one year in the making, an eight-minute documentary featuring the arduous lives of “sea women,” female divers eking out a living by collecting edible seaweed, is being screened at the North Coast Exploratorium in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Shihmen District (石門), seeking to revive memories of a fast-disappearing way of life.
The film, titled Dancing with the Sea (與海共舞), was filmed in 3D by the North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area Administration.
It vividly presents how sea women, mostly in their senior years, dive into the sea without scuba gear to collect sea vegetables in exchange for a meager income to support their families.
“The sea women divers represent a type of fishing culture developed during the Japanese colonial period, when the coast of northern Taiwan was lined with traditional fishing villages,” North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area Administration director Chen Mei-hsiu (陳美秀) said.
At the time, because most households from these fishing villages were not well-off, women would dive into the sea during the low fishing season to harvest gelidium seaweed and hair moss, Chen said, adding that they would then sell the edible seaweed to supplement their family’s income.
“Due to the tremendous hardship and high risk entailed in being a sea woman, few young people today are willing to take up the traditional job, resulting in a sharp decrease in the number of existing sea women, most of whom only operate in areas near Yehliu (野柳) and are already in their 60s, 70s or 80s,” Chen said.
Among them is 71-year-old Lin Liu Pi-lan (林劉碧蘭), whose disadvantaged background forced her to take up seaweed harvesting at the age of 13.
Being the only daughter in a traditional fishing household, Lin Liu said that she was deprived of any opportunities for education and had to help ease the family’s financial burden by doing what other women at the time did.
After learning how to swim and dive by herself, Lin Liu began her life-long career as a sea woman.
Each year, during the gelidium’s peak season between the second and fifth months of the Lunar calendar, Lin Liu starts her day’s work hauling seaweed along the shore, before diving into the ocean without equipment to forage for more.
“After spending the entire afternoon working, I almost always come home with soreness and pain all over my body,” Lin Liu said, adding that although it was particularly painful for her to work under the sea in winter, she had no option but to “suck it up.”
To process gelidium into marketable jelly products, Lin Liu has to first wash the seaweed up to eight times and let it dry in the sun, before boiling it in water to dissolve the gelatinous agar.
After the dissolved agar solidifies, it is served with a few spoons of sugar-sweetened water to become what is known as “gelidium jelly,” Lin Liu said.
Because gelidium jelly does not fetch high prices, Lin Liu said she was happy to make NT$8,000 (US$270) a month peddling the seaweed.
Chen said being a sea woman is more than just an occupation, it also highlights the valuable aspects of the nation’s traditional fishing industry and that she hoped the documentary would help preserve and pass on this distinctive culture.