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The final frontier, under the seaJeju’s scuba scene is bouncing back after recent setbacks
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승인 2013.05.21  13:39:31
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▲ Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province

Space may be the final frontier on TV, but here on Earth it’s under the sea. With only 10 percent of the ocean having been explored there are literally millions of undiscovered species and places to espy; the ocean floor is undoubtedly the site of the next great exploration.

Jeju offers a unique location to dive and is home to a burgeoning diving industry. Potential divers don’t even need years of intensive astronaut training - merely a few days on an open water scuba diving course and you’re good to go.

▲ Photo courtesy Big Blue 33

The two main currents - fed by the cold North Pacific and the warmer East China Sea - create remarkable conditions as the two battle it out for dominance around Jeju, bringing warm waters from June until about November, and colder waters for the rest of year. Plants native to both flourish in the sea around the island, while the types of fish vary according to the season.

The real draw of Jeju, however, is its soft coral gardens and dramatic underwater rock formations. Hidden away in sheltered basins and alongside rock walls are breathtakingly beautiful coral formations that would make Nemo weep for joy. The majestic rock formations rise and fall underwater just as dramatically as on land, with great cliffs dropping away to a dark abyss edging alongside colossal jagged rock pinnacles.

▲ Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province

The seascape never disappoints. Neither does the wildlife: from large flounders (cue Little Mermaid music) and giant jellyfish (up to several meters long in some cases) to the minuscule slug-like nudibranch that the keen and observant, if rather slow, diver may find, no two dives are the same.

As diving instructor and Jeju resident James Barker put it: “In my five years of diving I haven’t once come across as many soft corals as I have here. The same goes for its rich diversity of nudibranchs which make it a top spot for macro-diving.”

▲ Photo courtesy German National Underwater Photography Team

All this, as well as the relative lack of accessibility of good diving spots on the rest of the Korean Peninsula, make Jeju very popular for diving enthusiasts. The diving industry is largely focused around Seogwipo, where the first dive shop opened in the 70s by Korea’s first PADI Dive instructor. 

From those humble beginnings has bloomed a whole industry, with 30 thousand people diving off Seogwipo a year, while perhaps 10 thousand others go to other sites on the island.

▲ Photo courtesy Big Blue 33

But it’s not all been rainbows and butterflies. Last year, following a tragic accident, the coast guard suspended all diving activity from boats. Ralf Deutsch, owner of the Big Blue 33 dive shop in Seogwipo, which caters to most English-speaking divers, said that previously the dive shops had been chartering local fishing boats to take them out to the dive sites offshore. This arrangement wasn’t technically legal, but as licenses were not available under Korean law, it was the best they could do. Following the accident, the coast guard issued a blanket ban.

“I could understand their position. They felt things had to be legal. What I can’t understand is the way they went around it. They were shutting us down from one day to the next. It would have killed several shops without the association,” said Deutsch.

▲ Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province

But that has not stopped the divers and the Jeju Dive Shop Association, which represents virtually all the shops on the island - 32 at last count - is back with a bang. It represents “a necessary step for the industry on Jeju”, according to Deutsch.

By the end of June, the association plans to have three custom-built, fully equipped and diver-friendly boats in operation for use exclusively by diving shops. These feature such basics as a rear platform and ladders to allow for diving from the boat, indoor seating and full underwater protections for divers, as well as luxuries like sun decks and padding.

▲ Photo courtesy German National Underwater Photography Team

There are also plans to expand the number of dive sites by setting up dive platforms on permanent barges out in the harbour to provide alternatives to the islands off the Seogwipo coast. One is already being refitted, while another bigger one should be ready later this year.

So, if you’ve ever considered trying diving, or if you’re already certified but have been putting it off, this is the year. Diving on Jeju has never been better, or safer, than it is right now. The next great exploration could well be yours.

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