Diving Jeju Island, South Korea
An underwater photographer visits the "Land of the Morning Calm"
Text and Photographs by Kevin Lee
Presently, I am composing this article, in an airplane, 38,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, near Alaska's Aleutian Trench, as our Boeing 747 hurtles toward LAX, at a ground speed of 628 miles per hour, assisted along by a strong jet-stream tailwind. Even so, we’re still 4 hours from touch down. The outside temperature is a frosty minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit.
Following a business trip in Asia, I managed to squeeze in some diving off South Korea’s largest, southernmost island province of Jeju. Water temps were warm, at 77~79F, perfect for my 3mm suit and a hood for multiple dives. When I last dived a few years ago in March, the water temps were more like those of Southern California i.e. in the 50s.
Not for the faint-hearted
Tidal fluctuations around the Korean peninsula are among the widest in the world. As a result, strong swirling currents are produced around the small, volcanic, craggy islets from which we dived. Due to these wild currents, one tiny islet, Seki-Som, is conveniently rigged underwater with a web of stout ropes. These ropes assist divers in navigating back to the exit points and serve as tethers for holding one’s position and even pulling oneself along, against stiff currents. Diving can be challenging when dealing with a cumbersome camera rig.
Author Kevin Lee at one of Jeju's underwater entry points
Seki Som dive site, where conditions can be treacherous due to wild tidal currents
Who to dive with in Jeju
A handful of Korean dive operators offer competent support for local divers. However, for the international diver, to overcome the language barrier, it is highly recommended to employ BigBlue33, a dive operation owned and operated by Ralf, a German chap who originally went to teach German, at a local university, fell in love with a pretty Korean gal and married her. They are raising a daughter together. The staff at BigBlue33 speaks fluent English and German and provides excellent dive services at reasonable prices.
What's there to see underwater in Jeju?
Expansive underwater scenes offer great wide-angle opportunities and even better macro subjects. Generally the underwater visibility was in the 25 to 50 foot range. Although Korea lies in higher latitudes, it is bathed by warm waters flowing northward from the South China Sea. Thus, a wide variety of animals inhabit the waters, including frog fish, huge sand dollars, abalones, and colorful sea slugs. Even in the Philippines and Indonesia, I have not witnessed such abundance of soft corals, which grow large, up to a meter high, in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors and sizes. Some walls are a veritable soft coral forest.
Though South Korea is relatively unknown as a scuba destination, it is well worth taking the road less traveled to experience the amazing diving there. Along the way, you can experience the cultural delights of the Hermit Kingdom, an ancient country, which rose from the ashes of war in 1953, to become one of the world’s most advanced and modern nations.
One day, after completing our dives off a small islet, we took a head count and, satisfied that all divers were aboard, prepared to motor back across the wide channel to the main island of Jeju. At that moment, we heard a voice urgently calling out for attention. Peering down, we were astonished to see a woman floating in the water nearby. It was a Hae-nyo, literally Sea Maiden, for which Jeju Island is famous. For hundreds of years, these hard-working, hardy, free diving Hae-nyo have earned a living by harvesting the bounty of the sea, collecting shellfish, crustaceans, sea cucumbers, fish & other marine life, including nutritious kelp, cut with a hand scythe. All of their catch is placed in a net bag.
Pride of the Sea Maiden and extraordinary tales
Our Hae-nyo, wore the old style oval dive mask and had lead weights slung around her chest, using a wide rubber strap, fashioned from a tire inner tube. She wore a thin wetsuit and used a Styrofoam buoy as a floatation device. Her harvest bag was filled with goodies and she was anxious to return home. However, she had misjudged the changing tide and found herself stranded, unable to make the long swim back against a fierce current. Thus, she had called out for assistance. Our captain obliged and offered help. However, out of pride for her Hae-nyo heritage, she respectfully declined to board the boat. Instead, she requested we throw her a rope, the end of which we knotted so she could maintain a firm grip for her tug across the channel. Thus, she avoided the embarrassment of leaving the water and preserved the Hae-nyo image as maidens of the sea. We slowly pulled her across the channel and on reaching her destination, we smiled and waved goodbye. I got a close look at her face and was surprised it was weathered with deep lines that indicated she was an elderly woman, probably in her late sixties. Alas, the Hae-nyo are a vanishing group, as younger generations do not want to undertake such an arduous and dangerous profession.
Infrequently there are tales of Hae-nyo who, caught in strong tidal currents, are swept out to sea. However, they are taught not to fight the unyielding force; rather they go out with it, confident in the knowledge that Poseidon will return them back in six hours. Sure enough, when they return, their families, friends and news reporters are on hand to welcome back the Sea Maiden.
About the Author:
Kevin Lee is a valued contributor of the Underwater Photography Guide. He resides in Fullerton, California and is an enthusiastic traveller, diver and nudiphile. Kevin's images have been featured in magazines, newspapers, academic literature and numerous dive related publications. For more of his excellent photography and dive travel stories visit his website at http://www.diverkevin.com/
Photo of Kevin Lee taken by Kim Jin-Soo