Diving in the Land of The Morning Calm

Published in UK Diver magazine May 2015

“You can dive in Korea…?” This is the response I usually get from people when I tell them about my three and a half years spent instructing scuba there. Often this will be accompanied by a puzzled expression as they dig deep in to their memory for anything they may have heard in the past about diving in that part of Asia.

To start with, yes, you can dive in Korea. The country is surrounded by water, with the exception of the heavily armed border that divides the north and south. Due to North Korea being totally off limits to the south, it is much like being on an island. Referred to as “the hermit nation”, their dive scene, like many aspects of their culture, is little known about outside of the country.

Historically, South Korea has maintained a strong relationship with the ocean, however this bond is based largely on (ab)using the sea as a food source. As well as the extensive industrial fishing that takes place, Koreans also have a traditional technique for harvesting their seas. For centuries “Haenyeo,” who are essentially free divers, have braved the frigid temperatures of their surrounding waters. Equipped with a mask, fins, a basic spear or knife, a net bag attached to a float and a rope to assist descents and ascents, these sturdy individuals spend the day duck-diving for anything from clams to octopus. Their catch is then sold to the scores of seafood restaurants or fish markets that are found in abundance up and down the country.

So there is water and you can dive there, but what is it like? In truth, even if it were possible, I feel it would be unfair to classify Korean diving as either good or bad. A variety of elements can present challenging conditions for people who are more accustomed to fairer waters. It can be hard work diving in Korea but on a good day, that hard work really pays off.

It transpired that my UK dive training and experience prepared me well for what Korea had to offer. I was based in Busan, a city on the south coast with a population of around 3.5million people. In general, diving for much of the year was not for the faint hearted. Perilously rocky beach entrances lead to dark murky water where much of the year fins are not visible. At best, divers in Taejongdae beach get to enjoy 10 meters of clarity.

Elsewhere, visibility stretches from nonexistent up to 30 meters. Depending on whether you are east, south or west and what time of year you are in the water, temperatures range from 3 degrees up to a high of 25. Bracing thermoclines and ripping currents are common. My years were typically spent trying to dive around typhoons, monsoons, rainy seasons, yellow dust (a visible pollution that drifts over from China) and snowy winters.

I found it interesting to note that in spite of the challenging elements, Korea has a strong dive scene. It is a rapidly growing market for certification agencies, dominated by PADI and SSI, I even encountered a cluster of BSAC clubs. The cultural norm is to do things as a group, for this reason dive clubs and the excursions they offer are very successful. It is in this fashion that divers living in the colossal, built up cities make their trips to lesser populated, rural areas to enjoy far better conditions.

Many Koreans are drawn to the ocean by their love of fresh seafood. Due to excessive overfishing, there is limited opportunity to spear anything sizeable. As such, it is common for divers to take nets and tools for removing anything that still clings to the rocky surface.

sea squirt

Embracing a “Look don’t touch” approach made our international dive club stand out from the others who could not see the point in entering the water if not to hunt. When teaching courses, I would need an interpreter to describe to the boat captain exactly what we needed in terms of depths and other requirements. We would then cram ourselves in to a boat, packed with underwater hunters and start our journey to the site. Along the way, at seemingly random intervals, hunters would roll backwards over the inflatable sides, the outboard motor only slowing down momentarily to lessen the impact. The solo divers would then be picked up an hour later, one by one as the boat made its way back to the harbour having collected us from our predetermined exit point. I will always remember one particularly angry “undersea hunter” who had made such an entrance, unfortunately without his weight belt. The diver’s cries to get the attention of the boat captain went unheard resulting in him floating around on the surface for over an hour in his dry suit before being picked up again.

Unfortunately, the ensuing disharmony between traditional Haenyeo and scuba divers has a tendency to manifest itself, sometimes to the point of physical force. While out on a dive, a buddy of mine had a Haenyeo, angered by the extent at which the ocean is ravaged by scuba divers, sneak up to him and pull his mask off and reg out. I personally am only too aware of how fishermen view scuba divers having had one deliberately drop an anchor on me while I was guiding a dive around a pretty island called Goeje Do. Miraculously, the anchor missed us by a couple of feet.

sea hare

Divers encounter a variety of attractions in amongst the rocky underwater terrain. Artificial reefs have been created using giant concrete cubes. These underwater climbing frames resemble playgrounds, which are enjoyed by groups of giant octopus. On the south west corner of the coastline, dive clubs frequently visit small fishing villages on the outskirts of Pohang. Here they find underwater statues like a Buddah set in a cave, a Virgin Mary and, oddly enough, a 6 foot tall concrete penis. Upon investigating the latter, I learned that the concrete penis was an offering to the angry spirit of a lady who was swept out to sea on her wedding day. Her screams can apparently be heard in the storms that, as legend has it, she creates in her frustrated state. Such phallic statues can also be found on dry land. Nearby, giant octopus starfish slowly crawl around two nameless wrecked fishing boats. Heading further north to Uljin, divers will be rewarded with a section of coastline littered with wrecks. On the other end of the scale, macro lovers can find an astonishing array of colourful nudibranches.

buddah  octopus starfish

The national gemstone is Jeju island. Situated approximately 100 miles from the mainland, the journey is just a 45 minute hop away by plane. This honeymoon destination is southerly enough to be home to tropical fish as well as their cold water relatives. Jeju has an abundance of colourful soft coral and kelp gardens. Operations here offer the chance for people without certification to try diving as it is sufficiently distanced from the harsher conditions of the mainland. Beginners are sometimes taken in to the water without fins in order to make them easier for an instructor to tow them around. Just when I thought I could no longer be surprised, while diving around Jeju one day, I encountered a group of four people without fins, tied together being dragged around by a guide.

Scuba enthusiasts in Korea can take advantage of their location in order to explore the surrounding countries. From Seoul it is easy to fly to an abundance of world class dive destinations including Palau, the Philippines, Thailand and Guam. As diving increases in popularity, more Korean owned dive centres are opening up in these locations to keep up with the trend.

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to live somewhere truly off the beaten path of dive tourism. In South Korea, I experienced a completely different way of living and diving. Some marine life I found to be most fascinating include Nomura’s jellyfish, the world’s largest cnidarian weighing up to 220kgs; the giant octopus; sea hares that follow the cold water; and the flying gurnard that swim/fly/run throughout the sand flats. Korea is unlike anywhere else, however, as the newer generations continue to embrace western culture, their identity will change. A different attitude to the ocean and its inhabitants will undoubtedly be a good thing but having said that I know I am lucky to have seen the country above and below water in its present form. I became a diver and a traveler in response to my passion for adventure. Living and diving in Korea met my needs for fresh excitement. Diving in these unknown waters, in a manner so abstract from anywhere else, reminded me of the thrill I enjoyed on my first ever dives.