Two weeks ago, my weekend began when my scooter took a nap. Then my phone died. Then I wandered off of the bus in search of barbecue, carrying in both arms the tent and sleeping bag that the rain had rendered pointless, as the night moved from coffee shop to barbecue to CU mart.
And then we discovered orange-flavored soju. And then there were no more “and thens.”
So after all of that, when I tell you that I was on a bus by 8:15 the next morning with a wetsuit in my bag, you can take away one fact:
I really, really love snorkeling.
For the nearly two years that I’ve lived on Jeju, I have spent as much time as possible in the water. To a slightly insane degree.
Here are the best of those days.
Cut back to 8:15 on Sunday morning. I hopped off the bus near the Buza Cafe and Guesthouse on the Gwatchi-to-Hallim coastal road, where the impossibly nice guesthouse owner said he would look after my scooter. Then he drove me down the road to a marina that he said was good for snorkeling.
But it wasn’t enough.
I made my way back to the bus and headed straight for Gosan, a fishing village on the far west of the island. I’d been here before, and had come back for one thing:
Specifically, one tiny, perfect, potentially swimmable island.
I changed into my wetsuit at the mouth of the harbor, and before anyone had time to stop me I pushed out into the tiny channel, timing my swim with a lag in the boat traffic.
Then my world tilted to the underside of the water, a world of thin fish pouring beneath me in silver currents, painted there by the same current that shoved me with worrying strength toward the flat valley between the islands.
I made it to the island. But I would not tell you to try the same.
On the island I saw again the gap between the picked-over tidepools of wider Jeju and the small, rare moments of unaltered diversity. It had been some time since I had seen barnacles this large.
The island was easily seen within a few minutes, but the different perspective had shown me something far more valuable:
Sea caves. Three or four of them, specifically. Cut from the cliff just north of the harbor.
As I swam towards the caves I passed the fishermen posted on the walkable portion of the cliff, then moved beyond to where large, solitary fish hung above the large, solitary rocks studding the sandy floor.
I found the first cave, and swam cautiously inside. A large flat rock formed my seat and I lay half in the shade and half in the sun, with purple algae at my back, following the golden beads of water as they dripped from the roof of the cave into the slosh of foam below.
The next cave was just a straight-edged drop into shade.
The last held a tiny, tiny beach, above water turned milky with sand
And at the end of them all came a long, flat rock angled down to the perfect swim step, with the definite potential for some relaxed cliff jumping, though I didn’t have time to check the depth myself.
And then I headed back to shore, where I watched a vendor roast me a dried squid on hot coals.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-Take the 702 bus to Gosan. Walk past the elementary school towards the port, keeping the oreum (hill) just on your right.
-To get to the caves, walk as far as you can along the rocks to the right side of the port (when facing the ocean). Then, swim that same distance again to reach the caves.
-Be careful! I would only recommend these caves for advanced swimmers, preferably with fins of some kind. I would not recommend the island due to the strong current.
This weekend, I woke up at 5:30 am in a tent at Hyeopjae beach and drove my (now working) scooter to Hallim port to meet my haenyeo class.
Our destination: Biyangdo Island.
Biyangdo is a tiny, tiny island about a 10-minute ferry ride from Hallim. It features in every picture from Hyeopjae beach, and it looks a little bit like a baby mammoth lying on its belly with its trunk outstretched in front.
But unlike a mammoth, it’s great for snorkeling.
In classic haenyeo class style, we did almost everything else we could do before getting in the water. We walked around the island, picking up trash as we walked. I filled my bag, then snuck away to the top of the oreum to marvel at the view of Hallasan and hyeopjae. We had snacks. We had lunch. We sat in the sun.
Then, we got in the water.
Instantly I could tell the difference from the rest of Jeju. There were different textures underwater, different colors, and countless more types of fish. I peered into crevices to meet the fishy stare of dark blue eyes wound round with curling orange, like a tribal tattoo.
Under a rock, four rainbow-colored shrimp observed one of their members performing a dance I can only guess read as “sexy” in shrimp language.
Sand dollar tests, as big as a salad plate, lay scattered across the sandy floor, proof of a larger living bed somewhere offshore.
I found a perfect, perfect cowrie shell.
When we got out of the water, most of the group seemed disappointed. Most had caught nothing. Even the haenyeo we copied had caught almost nothing. I found only a single sora, or conch shell, which I subtly threw back afterward.
And that was why I loved Biyangdo the most.
Jeju has lots of living things, but too often they are just mirror copies of each other. It’s hard to find species diversity in a place where larger predatory fish are subject to anybody’s fishing pole. On Biyangdo, I saw only one sora, but I saw far, far more variety than I’d ever seen on Jeju.
And that was certainly worth the trip.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-Bus into the vicinity of the Hallim harbor. I’ve used the 702 myself. Then, walk or cab in the direction of the large cranes you will see over the buildings, which mark the harbor.
-Purchase your ferry ticket from the ferry terminal, directly next to the police station, on the right side of the harbor ( if facing the ocean). Ferries depart from Hallim harbor twice daily, at 9:00 am and 3:00 pm. Return trips are at 9:15 and 3:15. Tickets are around 2,000 won.
-Once on the island, any snorkeling should be good. I’ve gone from the boat launch ramp 100 meters east from the port, and also from random spots along the coastal walk.
Udo will make almost any of these lists; it’s one of my favorite places near Jeju Island. But it was last summer, during a Chuseok camping trip, that I really got an idea of how great it can be underwater.
I packed my scooter and found myself at the base of the lighthouse hill, looking down on a bay of steely blue water. On went the gear, and off went I.
I paddled around the bay for a while, delighting in the fish that moved in mass through the low water. On the wall I dove down to watch a few bright soft corals, their tentacles tasting the plankton alongside the odd gorgonian, or sea fan.
But then I rounded the point, and found myself at the base of the perfect sea cave.
It had steep sides, protected on all sides by long sloping rocks. And unlike most caves, it didn’t have the buildup of trapped seaweed and plastic.
What it did, have though, was boats. Speedboats. Full of adrenaline-hungry tourists, at the interval of every few minutes.
I hugged the rock wall to be safe, and only went in the cave when I was sure no boats were on their way. And it was worth it. Below me a jelly the side of a trashcan drifted with agonizing slowness into the sharp line of shade. A blue-striped angelfish, the first I’d ever seen, turned towards me with board-like clumsiness.
I climbed up on the rocky ledge, and talked with a fisherman in the sun. He told me of sharks. I wasn’t sure if I believed him.
And then I swam back to my scooter, and new adventures.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-Take the 701 or 710 bus from the bus terminal to Seongsan port. The 710 bus is far more direct, but only runs once an hour.
-Walk straight ahead to the ferry terminal, and purchase your tickets. Be aware that the last ferries run between 4:30 and 6:00, depending on the season.
-Get off at Cheonjinhang Port. Walk to your right along the coast until the walking path dead-ends. Swim around the far point to reach the sea cave. Be careful of boat traffic!
When I was studying literature in school, I avoided Shakespeare. Not for his exquisite language, or his deep intuition, or the uncanny way he could capture human nature in a twist of words.
I avoided him because he was just too perfect. And perfection is static.
Oedolgae is the Shakespeare of Jeju Island snorkeling. It is by far the best single place to go for an all-inclusive afternoon of swimming, cliff-jumping, and snorkeling. I’ve seen gorgonians and schools of tiny squid. I’ve seen some awesome backflips. It’s a place of color, and sun, and all things aquatic.
And no trip to Jeju is complete without a jump off of the cliffs.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-From the Jeju City bus terminal, take the 780 bus (516 route) to Seogwipo.
-Take a cab to Oedolgae. The fare should be under 5,000 won.
-From the convenience store/gift shop, walk towards the water and turn left at the boardwalk. Go down the steep stairs to the water and make your way to the large rock. You will see many swimmers in the enclosed rock pool; the best cliff jumping and snorkeling is around the far side of that same large rock.
Hamdeok is by far the prettiest beach on Jeju, and one of the busiest as well. It’s well known for parties; this is the scene of volleyball, as well as this weekend’s Stepping Stone music festival.
It comes as a surprise, then, that Hamdeok is also one of the better beaches for snorkeling.
On the main beach, you will see people in life jackets and rash guards kicking around in masks and snorkels in three feet of sandy water, while the lifeguards blow their whistles at anyone who goes out further than waist deep.
Don’t go there.
Instead, during beach season, I like to head to the smaller of the two beaches, at the base of the oreum (volcanic hill) on the far right of the beach. From there, I follow the walking path along the base of the oreum until it ends at a wooden platform. Climb down to the rocks from the platform, and the water waits below.
This is a great place to see all the standard Jeju fish: yellow-striped butterfly fish. Triggerfish. Curious, open-mouthed boxfish. Little silver schooling fish, and tiny schools of orange fish that zig-dag like shocks of electricity.
I saw my first Jeju nudibranch here, colored blue, yellow and orange like a crayon.
And then a short swim brings you back to the warm white sand.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-From the Jeju City bus terminal, take the 701 bus to the Hamdeok beach stop. Walk to the far right of the beach, then swim out from the wooden platform mid-way along the base of the hill.
6. Jungmun Octagon Pillars
I almost didn’t include this, but I will for the sake of just one species:
The blue-striped angelfish. The prettiest fish on Jeju.
As you probably know, Jeju was once a volcano. Every single pebble under my feet used to be lava. Every single rock.
And nowhere is that fact more relevant than at the octagonal pillars in Jungmun, where the lava formed into tall step-like platforms of sharp black stone.
I thought those pillars might continue underwater; I was wrong. But I was pleasantly surprised to find, instead, at least three pairs of brilliant bright-blue angelfish drifting through the tumbled lava-rock.
The snorkeling wasn’t that great. There was lots of thin algae on the rocks, and the visibility suffered.
But there was color. Bright blue. Set against the black of ancient fire.
DO IT YOURSELF!
-Take the 600 Airport limousine from the Airport, and get off at the Jeju ICC (International Convention Center). Walk towards the ocean and turn left. Continue past the main viewing area until the path drops down to a rocky cove, and head out from there.
The great thing about Jeju is that it is an island. If you walk in any direction, you will eventually meet the ocean. And if you slip on a mask and paddle into that ocean, you are almost guaranteed to meet some underwater adventure.
These are just the best of the places where I’ve chanced to get underwater. Most of them are on the North side, too, since that’s the side of the island where I live. But there’s an entire coastline outside of these six places, and it’s waiting for you.
So get on your bicycle, motorbike, car, or bus. Ride until the water looks flat and the rocks look steep.
Then slip on your mask and slip underwater. The bright, breathless underside of Jeju awaits.