This Sunday I found myself in the delicious position of having a free day, no plans, a very limited knowledge of bus schedules, and 25 dollars on my transit card. So I did the natural thing: scrambled some eggs, shoved all of my snorkeling gear into a salt-weary backpack, and headed down to the bus stop with a notebook in hand.
The 780 bus came, and I told the driver the one name I knew – Jungmun – and then sat down toward the back in hopes he would forget about me. A while past Jungmun we entered Seogwipo, the smaller of the two cities on the island. I caught a glimpse of the word “Falls” on a street sign, so I stepped off the bus and started in the approximate direction of the water.
The difference between Seogwipo and Jeju City was immediate. While Jeju City moves at the brisk pace of 400,000 people, several bus routes, and at least four dozen coffee shops, Seogwipo strolls. The streets asked for Saturday mornings with a maxi skirt and a good book, or walks down to the water with a similarly salty backpack full of similarly crammed fins and snorkel. For one of the first times in three weeks on Jeju, I actually felt like I was on an island, doing island things, thinking island thoughts. I passed small restaurants, PC bangs, seafood stands, and a whole row of scuba shops.
The road I followed dead-ended into Seogwipo harbor, so I walked along the harbor following the signs toward Cheonjiyeon Falls. The harbor itself soon stole my attention. There were any number of commercial boats—the submarine tours, scuba boats, touristy fishing fleets—but these were vastly outnumbered by a fleet of fishing boats with matching white hulls, blue upper decks, and tackle that I couldn’t even begin to identify. Behind the harbor, small islands threw their silhouettes into the sky.
It didn’t take me long to reach the entrance to Cheonjiyeon Falls. They were easy to find—I just walked toward the bus parking lot and past the strip of stalls selling everything from Dunkin Donuts and name-brand coffee to street food. On a fluke, I tried a corn dog with something unidentifiable stuck to the outsides. The mystery shapes turned out to be bits of French fries—healthy though Korean food may be, when they fall, they fall hard.
I found a ticket office for the waterfall and prepared to pay the 2,000 won ($2) entrance fee, but for some reason my Alien Registration Card exempted me from a fee. I was glad, though, because at this point I was beginning to worry about the touristy feel of the place. I had the odd sensation that I was entering a theme park, not an accumulation of water and stone. The feeling intensified as I walked past a modern-art bridge with koi fish underneath.
At the end of the path, I reached the waterfall. It was a nice waterfall, even a beautiful waterfall. But I could only see it around the cameras of several dozen other viewers, and a no-swimming sign and a chain-link fence made it impossible to breathe the waterfall’s mist or feel the dampness of its surrounding stone. On the one hand I was grateful for the administration’s commitment to protecting the waterfall, but by ensuring the safety of its plants and animals they had transformed a wonder of nature into just another pretty backdrop for a picture. I left the falls happy that the native eels had been preserved, but without any overwhelming sense of wonder for the falls’ power.
From the falls, I walked a few hundred yards to the base of the Saeyeon bridge. The bridge itself was hard to miss—its signature white feather sculpture rose above a stone walkway built to withstand the height of tourist season. At the base of the bridge the haenyo, Jeju’s famous female divers, sold mollusks from green-and-yellow baskets that dotted the rocks on the ocean side of the bridge. I noticed a few divers working their way along the black rocks, or flipping their fins into the sky as they dove down to hunt the turban snails and octopi that live along the rocky bottom.
The most noticeable feature of the bridge, though, was the island on its far side. It stood as a wall of black stone plunging straight into water that shifted in color, changing from sand-paled turquoise into a dark blue that splintered the sun’s reflection. The light on the water was dazzling, and in the distance I could see the horizon broken by farther islands ringed with dive boats. I have no doubt that there are prettier beaches in the world, with bluer water and more dramatic silhouettes. But on this particular Sunday, with a pair of fins falling out of my backpack, I couldn’t have imagined a more inspiring view.
Before hitting the water, though, I had a look around the island. Saesom, this island is called, or bird island. The island was small, with thin trees and some high scrub, but there were enough birds around to make me wish for a field guide. Spishing brought a small flock of silvereye, the first bird that I learned to name in New Zealand and one that I was overjoyed to have re-discovered in such a foreign place. I was also intrigued by some small algal pools that showed as pockets of orange against the rocky windward side of the island.
I finished the short walk around the island, then headed down the stairs to see what this part of the world looked like below those shimmering waves. I left my backpack on some rocks and donned my fins, mask and snorkel. My wetsuit I left behind, thanks to the warm water from the Kirishio current. I ducked beneath the water and started to swim across the rocky bottom, narrowly dodging a fleshy white jellyfish three times the side of my head.
At first I didn’t see too much, just lots of small sculpins and miniature schooling fish that I couldn’t begin to identify. But then I hit the deeper part of the wall, and all of the sudden the dark stone turned into color. Soft corals—one of the top reasons I came to Jeju—sat folded into the stone in brilliant shades of purple and orange, their colonial polyps rounded into whimsical spheres. A massive gorgonian stretched its maroon branches straight into the water flow. Around the rocks, brilliantly colored fish moved about their business—blue wrasse, a blue-and-yellow angelfish, striped butterfly fish, countless sculpins. A boxfish, the weirdly hydrodynamic inspiration for toaster cars, swam straight towards me through the water column.
I popped my head up once and saw one of the haenyeo staring at me quizzically. Yes, I was alone in the water wearing overkill scuba fins fifteen days after the end of Korea’s beach season. And, yes– I was loving it.
After a while I headed back toward shore. I shoved my wet gear back into my bag, tying my towel around the zipper in a complicated knot. Then I walked out past the haenyeo and their shelled treasures. I realized at that point that I no longer thought of this ocean as a mid-gyre stop on the roadway to my own garibaldi and kelp forests. Instead, I thought of it only in terms of color.