▲ Ralf Deutsch surveys fishing boats in Seogwipo Harbor. Photo by Darren Southcott
For the last six weeks, Ralf Deutsch has spent most of his days sitting in his Seogwipo dive shop, Big Blue 33, hoping for change. After restrictions on boat use by the local maritime police, barely a trickle of customers now knocks on his door in what is normally high season.
“I am bored as hell,” he said, as he drove me around the harbor. “Normally I am working 10 to 12 hour shifts... Now, I spend most of my days in the shop, waiting.”
Deutsch has been waiting since June 23, when he received a call from Seogwipo Maritime Police telling him dive shops were no longer able to use “leisure boats” to transport divers to dive sites. This has effectively restricted dives to the less-than-ideal harbor and coast, and Deutsch has seen business and spirits plummet.
▲ With a wry smile Deutsch looks at his currently redundant breathing equipment. Photo by Darren Southcott
“We are all out of action. Some shops are using shore dive sites. One is right in the harbor — piles of dirty concrete blocks everywhere. Give me a break! How can you offer that to people who are coming to see the beautiful waters of Jeju?”
The German opened his business in 2001 and it was crucial in making Jeju part of the international scuba scene. Now even locals are going elsewhere.
“Not many people are interested in diving by the shore... the fish life, the coral are just not what we have further out. Korean divers are trying to go to the Philippines instead. People wana go diving, and they can’t go diving in Jeju,” he said.
▲ Scuba divers are currently forced to dive shore side such as here in Seogwipo Harbor, with the off-limits islets in the distance. Photo by Darren Southcott
The ban was issued in June by Seogwipo Maritime Police after they received a complaint from a member of the public alleging commercial use of leisure boats by dive shops. Leisure boats had only been in use since 2012 when an earlier ban on fishing boats was brought in after two fatalities. The second accident in 2012 was on an unauthorized dive using a boat without adequate safety measures.
Deutsch believes that the initial fishing boat ban was unwarranted and says they are “safe, seaworthy, and able for the job,” particularly as dive shops forced all boats to fit steel cages around propellers after the first accident in 2011. The local government seems to agree, passing an amendment to the Fishing Management and Promotion Act which would allow dive shops to use them again. This amendment is awaiting presentation to the National Assembly before being passed.
Boats used for scuba Fishing boats (“Nakksi Eoseon”)
These are commercial fishing vessels commonly also used for leisure sea fishing. Their use for scuba was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 2006 and Seogwipo Maritime Police banned their use in September 2012.
Leisure boats (“Haesang Lejeo Gigu”)
These inflatable vessels with outboard engines were used from September 2012 to June 2014 on Jeju. They have been banned by Seogwipo Maritime Police as they must not be used for commercial purposes, despite their continued use in Jeju City and across the Korean mainland.
Commercial passenger vessels (“Yulamseon”)
These large vessels carry hundreds and require docking and pontoon facilities, absent at dive sites. There are only two such vessels in Seogwipo Harbor, owned by one company, and dive shops say running costs are far too high for scuba.
▲ Heo Cheon-beom (left), president of Jeju Scuba Association, eagerly awaits the passing of new legislation to allow Seogwipo dive shops to again use fishing boats. Photo by Darren Southcott
As we return to Deutsch’s shop just meters from the harbor, we are joined by Heo Cheon-beom, president of Jeju Scuba Association. His face is etched with anxiety as he emphasizes the need to clarify scuba’s legal standing,
“The three amendments are in the Office of Legislation and will be reviewed by the National Assembly in September. They could pass, although they have failed to do so in previous years,” said Heo. Deutsch is also less than optimistic: “Realistically, we have to think of this year as a lost year,” he said.
Dive shops across the mainland, and even in Jeju City, are continuing to use the leisure boats Seogwipo Maritime Police says cannot be used commercially; the police states that the ban is the only option open to them after receiving a complaint on May 28. Heo points out, however, that the flat rate for diving is the same whether they visit offshore islands by boat, or they shore dive. Deutsch also refutes the suggestion that dive shops use the boats commercially.
▲ The leisure boats, used between 2012 and 2014, that are now not available for dive shops. Photo by Darren Southcott
“If you demand money for the boat ride it is commercial. But we are not demanding money ... I don’t charge for the ride, only the diving,” said Deutsch, adding, “If I drive them to the bus stop, is that commercial use too?”
The Maritime Police told The Weekly that they acted under the Water Leisure Craft Safety Act and commercial passenger ships are available for dive shops. Deutsch says that the two available in Seogwipo are exorbitantly expensive, charging 320,000 won per day, and it is this that has finally left the scuba shops high and dry.
“Can you picture that? Diving costs 90,000 in my shop, so I need six people to break even with the boat price, and I have not even made any money yet... Also, it requires a floating dock where passengers step onto a pontoon, and then onto the ship. Those facilities do not exist in Seogwipo, except for one that is being used.”
▲ A fishing boat once used for scuba returns into dock. Photo by Darren Southcott
This means that dives to Seogwipo’s most popular dive sites at the Munseom, Beomseom, and Seobseom islets are currently restricted due to the ban on fishing and leisure boats, and the lack of docking facilities were commercial boats affordable.
Both Deutsch and Heo believe it is time a special scuba law was enacted, particularly as scuba continues nationwide—and in Jeju City—using the very same leisure boats outlawed by Seogwipo Maritime Police. The current lack of such a law, common internationally, means that there is no clear definition of what kinds of boat can feasibly be used by dive shops.
According to a Seogwipo City report, says Heo, diving injected 60 trillion won into the local economy in 2011. Deutsch already estimates he has lost 100 customers in the last six weeks, with the bulk of the high season to come, which normally accounts for 70 percent of annual custom. He also stresses it is not just dive shops that will be affected, as up to 30,000 fewer divers means a similar number of lost hotel bookings, bus rides, local dinners and more.
▲ The message on Big Blue 33 telling divers of the "extremely disappointing" situation. Photo by Darren Southcott
Deutsch believes divers are the ideal tourist, comparing them favorably to golfers who spend few tourist dollars outside their course hotels, and as he waits for them to return, he is reflecting on the 10 years it has taken to build the island’s scuba reputation. He now fears this will all be lost after just a few months of turmoil.
“Our existence as a dive shop is threatened. Personally, if the new law doesn’t go through... I will have to rethink where I can go. There definitely is a point where it does not make any sense any more. I would consider leaving Korea.”
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