Scuba diving with Big Blue 33, Jeju, South Korea
Pre-dive jitters were setting in as this intrepid reporter stepped off the bus in Seogwipo, but one look at Ralf Deutsch, the owner/operator of Big Blue33, quickly quelled those fears. Ralf’s calming, open manner instils trust – we would be safe under the water with this man. Ralf has run Big Blue33 (so named because Jeju lies on the 33rd parallel) for the past seven seasons; deciding after his contract as German professor at Jeju National University finished, to stay here. So he opened the dive shop.
Why scuba dive in Jeju? The East China Sea, which surrounds the island, offers a mix of both soft coral and seaweed like kelp as well as supporting diverse sealife, including cold and warm water varieties of fish and nudibraches (sea slugs). Apparently professional divers who have dived all over the world, come to Jeju and still see something new. Besides, accessing good dive sites is relatively easy. Many of the islets off the Seogwipo are accessible by water taxi and support rich coral life. The rock face plunges straight down to the ocean bottom so one can set up “camp” on the island and dive right off into the water.
Us beginners were just there for the try dive. After signing the usual waivers we were walked through the basic essentials of scuba diving and the scuba gear, including the all important plugging of the nose and blowing out to equalize the pressure in the ears. And then it was the trying on of wet suits, loading the necessary equipment into the back of the dive van and driving five minutes to the harbour. We dived off of Little Museum island, an impressive place to dive from, because the rock looks like Swiss cheese due to its volcanic origins. Each of us had our own guide who assembled our gear for us (a complicated looking task), and walked us through every step from putting on the weight belt to getting into the water. The initial shock of 18C water wasn’t so bad in a wet suit. We used a previously placed rope to guide us the nine metres down to the channel bottom, where our guide helped us start swimming and controlled the air in our PDF.
Scuba diving: words fail to express the total freedom and liberty experienced swimming under the water. The water parts like a liquid curtain in front of my outstretched hands and the gentle surge rocks my body in a tender embrace. All around me is an unexplored world filled with vibrant colours, varied textures and unique marine life. Schools of multicoloured fish swim by, varying from a pair of large zebra striped angelfish, to a brilliant peacock blue minnow and a large puffer fish hiding in the kelp. Some of the more curious of fish come right up to my face and peer into my mask, trying to decide what this large mass could be. Even the stationary marine life is eye candy; the soft kelp covers the rock face in a forest of intense oranges, blues and purples. The ten minutes under the water was just not enough time to see all there was to see. And this was with the water clarity being less than desirable due to wave action stirring up silt on the previous day.
After the dive, the first words out of my mouth were “I want to go back down!” Ralf of course was plied with questions about getting certified. He offers three levels of NAUNI certification at his shop. The first is an entry level course that takes about 5 days to complete. It consists of classroom instruction (tested with a written exam), skills practice on the beach and 5 open water dives to the depth of 18 metres. Although there are other Scuba certification programs out there, such as PADI , they are pretty similar in course content. The difference comes in the quality of instruction. Apparently there are some “dive factories” in Southeast Asia where divers are churned out with little practice. He offered this word of advice, “Meet the instructor, before signing up for a diving course.”
Scuba diving – it can be done year round here on Jeju, with the peak diving season being from May to October. For more information on Big Blue33, check out his website at http://www.bigblue33.co.kr/ There are numerous other dive shops operating on Jejudo, although Ralf is one of the few who offer courses in English. Remember to bring a change of underclothes or a swim suit along – a wet suit means you will get dampish underneath!