Diving in the Kelp of South Korea
I had fallen behind the group, again, and as I caught up with them they were all gathered round a couple of rocks, looking intently at something. Ralf, our dive guide, was pointing out. As I approached them, they all let me through (they were a lovely group to dive with!) to have a look and here were two beautiful, bright orange nudibranchs, both about six inches long, and certainly not something I expected to see among the kelp whilst diving off a harbour breakwater!
Last year, when I was planning an overseas holiday, I realised that it had been ten years since I last visited my family in South Korea. However, I wasn’t about to go on holiday and not go diving! There wasn’t, and still isn’t, a huge amount of information about diving in South Korea (in English; there’s plenty in Korean, but I read Korean a lot slower than English), but where there’s a will, there’s a way – and through the magic of Google, I booked six days of shore diving; four days off Jejudo with Big Blue 33, and two days off Busan with Busan Seaworld Dive Center. Both had owners/staff who spoke excellent English, so communication wasn’t a problem.
After paying my respects to various members of my family, I was off to Jejudo at the first available opportunity. Jejudo is the biggest island off the coast of Korea and its second biggest city, Seogwipo, has the best diving South Korea has to offer. Situated on the south side of Jejudo, Seogwipo is located in a temperate climate and has a tropical current coming from the south. All the pictures, videos and dive centre information promised that it wasn’t going to be tropical diving, but there was going to be an interesting mix of warm and cold water diving.
We didn’t have the most auspicious start to the diving. A recent change in the interpretation of boat licensing laws by the local coastguard had put an end to all boat diving off Seogwipo and a typhoon in the Philippines (a thousand miles away!) was causing a lot of swell and poor visibility. This left us with a massive option of just one place to go diving, off the Seogwipo harbour breakwater. There was a lot of construction work happening in the harbour itself, but the workers had thoughtfully left a big enough gap among the massive concrete bollards for the local divers. The entry point was at the bottom of some concrete stairs, but with the larger than expected swell, getting in and out of the sea was at best, tricky!
However, once I put my head underwater, I knew immediately that I’d enjoy diving here! All the colours I would have expected to see in the Red Sea were swimming around and below me. The visibility wasn’t allegedly great due to the aforementioned typhoon but we still had at least 8 metres (after spending two years solely diving off the UK and Ireland, I rate that as good vis!), but being able to see masked butterfly fish swimming in among the kelp was a first for me and it got the photographer inside me very excited. The sea bed was mainly rocky, covered with boulders and massive concrete jacks from the breakwater, which were covered with kelp and anemones.
After we surfaced at the end of the dive, it turned out that I had apparently enjoyed the dive more than the two other divers in group who weren’t too keen to get back in for a second dive. To be fair, the conditions were, if anything, getting worse, so I agreed to call it a day too. The swell was worse the second day, cancelling that day’s diving, which gave me the chance to see some of Seogwipo’s other sights that mainly consisted of some beautiful waterfalls, one of which falls straight into the sea.
Day three was grey and gloomy, but paradoxically, the diving conditions had improved! The Seogwipo harbour breakwater was still the only available dive site, but the visibility had improved to 10 meters and there was a lot more sealife out and about. Also, from a highly personal and photography-obsessed perspective, there were plenty of gobies and scorpion fish around that were willing to pose for a picture! Then towards the end of the day’s second dive, Ralf, my dive guide, pointed out two of the biggest nudibranchs that I’ve ever seen. I’m not the greatest at identifying nudibranchs but I believe that they were a species of Chromodoris. They really made my day and to celebrate a successful day’s diving, the group decided to go and eat a local delicacy, barbecued pork, in vast quantities!
Day four in Seogwipo had also started promisingly. There were grey clouds and rain but the sea conditions had improved further and we were able to dive off another site, Weol Pyeong Beach. Weol Pyeong Beach is a cobblestone beach, which is also a popular fishing and picnic spot, a combination which led to occasional remnants of barbecued fish littering the beach, which gave some unwanted clues as to what to expect underwater. However, once we descended, it was brilliant! There was 15 metres visibility and an abundance of sealife. The cobblestones gave way to boulders that marked the edge of the rocky shore and the sandy seabed. There were numerous flounder chilling on the sand, shoals of mullet feeding and even a lionfish lurking in a crevice. There were more nudibranchs – two more of the massive Chormodoris – another similarly sized Phyllidia, a tiny Bouphonia, numerous gobies and scorpion fish. Ralf took us to an artificial reef where there was some beautiful pink soft coral growing among the kelp. This was to be, by far, the best day’s diving in Korea that I’d get to experience.
The water temperature off Seogwipo was 27 degrees, which made my 5mm wetsuit more than adequate! The deepest we reached off the harbour breakwater was 16 metres and 20 metres off Weol Pyeong Beach. And for those of us that don’t like filling our luggage with dive gear, Big Blue 33 will rent out what you need to go diving.
There was yet another far away typhoon starting to affect the sea conditions, so feeling lucky to have had two successful days of diving, I moved onto Busan, South Korea’s second city. After the relaxing atmosphere of Seogwipo, being back in a 24/7 metropolis was a bit of a shock! Also my planning for this leg of the trip left a lot to be desired as it turned out that my accommodation was an hour and a half away from the dive site, Taejungdae Beach. As I didn’t have a car, this was to be an hour and a half of on public transport! So having unexpectedly added to my life experiences the joys of lugging full dive gear and a camera through an underground rail network, I met up with my dive guide, Stacie, for another day’s diving. For the record, Busan Seaworld Dive Center do rent out dive gear – I just like to use my own!
Taejungdae Beach was another cobblestone beach, but this time crammed with tarpaulin restaurants offering every kind of barbecued local seafood. All had two blue hoses going in and out of the sea, which served to keep their live ingredients fresh and for my dive guide and I, it helped with our navigation!
Stacie had already advised me that Busan’s diving wouldn’t be a good as Jejudo’s, so my expectations had been suitably lowered; but with 4 metres visibility, I found it to be very enjoyable! Perhaps I’ve been diving exclusively in the UK and Ireland for too long, but 4 metres visibility is more than plenty for me to enjoy myself underwater, especially when it was a glorious sunny day and the water a lovely 24 degrees.
The deepest we went to was 12 metres. The seabed was mainly covered with boulders and the sealife was noticeably different to Jejudo – there were plenty of fish, although less of the tropical variety. What stood out for me here were the numerous feather stars growing in between the crevices. Among them were crabs, gobies, scorpion fish and on the second dive, I spotted another nudibranch, although it wasn’t of the gigantic variety, but a tiny Bouphonia. My dive guide was more surprised than I was by the Bouphonia, but just as excited.
In keeping with tradition, we celebrated by eating more delicious Korean cuisine, although we decided against a seaside barbecue. I love seafood, but having just enjoyed diving and photographing the local sealife, I wasn’t quite ready to eat it straight away. So we filled up this time on meelmyun (spicy cold noodles). Unfortunately for the final day’s diving Mother Nature intervened again with another typhoon off the Philippines (later I felt guilty about a complaining about a ruined day’s diving when in the Philippines the situation was probably a bit more serious). I was told that I had been unlucky with the weather as typhoons generally only affect South Korea much later in the year. To console myself, I finally brought myself round to eating some of the local catch in the form of hwedobbab, Korean sashimi served with rice, vegetables, dried seaweed and a generous dollop of chilli paste, before heading back to see more of my family in Seoul.
Overall, I had a great time. I loved the diving that Mother Nature allowed me to do and I had a lot of fun eating Korean food, drinking Korean soju (in moderation whilst diving of course), and meeting new people whilst enjoying the rich culture Korea has to offer. I think another ‘family’ visit is in store in the near future!
Ultimate Raja Ampat – The Last Paradise (Part 3 of 3)
When you visit a place like Raja Ampat over 11 days you really have a lot to talk about. The biodiversity and landscape of the region are inspiring and this is why it’s taken me three blog articles to explain how wonderful this experience was. If you haven’t had the chance already to read the previous two blogs, you can find them here: Part 1 and Part 2.
After a crossing of around 14 hours – quicker due to a southerly current working with the boat – we found ourselves in Farondi diving Razorback Rock, Anchovy, Nudi Rock (yes, it looks like a nudibranch) and a night dive at Yilliet Slope. I have to admit, it was the south and around Misool that I was really looking forward to on the trip, but it didn’t really get off to the best start and never lived up to the high standards further north had set. To be frank, this was more down to the weather really and the visibility wasn’t brilliant.
A storm meant the dives were pretty dark and in fact, the dive at Anchovy in particular was more like a night dive than a day dive. Unfortunately, we can’t control the weather and on other days these sites could have delivered a lot more. The sea fans on each dive were equally as impressive as further north, and I’d probably say more abundant. The dark atmosphere did mean I could try some fun and different shots with clownfish in anemones but I probably should have switched to macro quicker that day. There are always fun critters to find on every dive site and Nudi Rock showed just that, with a few sea fans being infested with skeleton shrimp. While I’ve seen skeleton shrimp before, I’d never seen anything like this; every bit of the fan was covered. There must have been thousands and it was quite fitting that it was actually Halloween as well.
After a moody day, where I’m guessing the weather gods were celebrating Halloween, I finally switched to macro on the night dive and my photography was rewarded for it. An elusive pygmy squid started the dive but didn’t allow me to get a photo with its tricky movements. Still fun to watch and see, before once again, nudibranch were the stars of the show. A free swimming black and orange flatworm mesmerised mid-water, but it was a super tiny nudibranch of only around a centimetre long that I admired most and took some time to photograph. Then it was the turn of crustaceans once again. A couple of different types of decorator crab, a couple of lobster species and a whip coral shrimp finished off the dive after the sea slug starter.
The next day, the wide-angle opportunities improved drastically. Although, rather annoyingly, I stuck with macro on the first dive at Neptune’s Fan Sea. I hadn’t seen a Denise pygmy seahorse before and was desperate to get a shot of one before the trip was over. This site was a great opportunity. It was sea fan heaven, but that does mean there’s a lot more places to look. The topography was incredible on the dive, a cliff of sea fans greeted us and made wide angle a good option. It was such a relaxing dive with a small school of bumphead parrotfish making the occasional pass, and the soft coral formations continued in huge numbers and were so impressive. I did manage a couple of nice nudibranch shots but the seahorse remained elusive for our group.
I decided to switch back to wide angle for Four Kings and that was certainly the right choice. A swarm of jellyfish greeted us on the dive and made it one of the most memorable of the trip. There was so much life around the pinnacles as the fish life danced a merry dance. The game of dodge the jellyfish entertained throughout and it was interesting to see as they’d get trapped on the sea fans. Something I’d never experienced before on such an incredible dive site. Barracuda point finished off the day’s diving in relaxing style, with a stunning top reef. Yes, I saw my first two Denise pygmy seahorses here, but no, I had my wide angle on. It was a great site for photographing lionfish though and there was a small school of barracuda giving the site its name.
Although “The Jellyfish Dive” was an amazing highlight of the day, it wasn’t actually diving that finished the day in style. A sunset cruise in Wayilbatan delivered those feels. You know the ones, when you’re in a beautiful place, at a beautiful time and with only a handful of people. You get that completely content feeling and just forget all your worries and live for that moment. It was a spontaneous trip out as well, as the itinerary was to trek to Love Lagoon. However, the guests on the trip before advised it would probably be best to take it off the itinerary for a bit. Unfortunately, with a forced Covid break and lack of maintenance care, the stairs have become slightly dangerous for trekking. The alternative didn’t disappoint and in fact excelled. An exploratory journey, where even the crew didn’t really know where we were going, took us to some breathtaking views with an amazing sunset backdrop. The glass like sea provided the perfect stage with its mirror like reflections. Then in the shallows we could see every bit of coral and life we passed, before tilting your head and following the cliff face up to amazing limestone islands covered in lush green rainforest. Just beautiful!!
With only two days and six dives left, one of my main goals was to photograph a Denise pygmy seahorse. I was in a catch 22 though, there were some memorable wide-angle dives to come. Starting with Boo Window and the arch swim through creating a dramatic image with a diver. I was happy with those wide-angle photos, but guess what? We did see a pygmy again. Still, I wasn’t to be defeated and we also had the friendliest hawksbill turtle on the dive too.
Next up was Shadow Reef (a.k.a Magic Mountain), in the hope to see the majestic Oceanic manta rays. We entered through a concentrated section of bad visibility and then the weather also changed with a storm passing over while we were below. It went dark underwater once more and unfortunately there were no mantas to be seen during the dive. It was still such a special dive site with schooling jackfish, a small school of batfish, another friendly hawksbill, Napoleon wrasse and my first whitetip reef sharks of the trip.
I had to switch to macro and hope for a pygmy at Whale Rock. No such luck unfortunately, but it was an amazing macro dive with numerous crustaceans and my favourite photos of whip coral shrimp. A Pikachu nudibranch was another great nudibranch find by one of my dive buddies. There might have been no seahorse due to skeleton shrimp infesting all the sea fans, but I was really happy with the macro photography success on this dive.
The night dive at Romeo carried on with the magnificent macro theme. We were there to try and see a walking shark again but unfortunately it remained elusive on this dive. Typical, when I have all my equipment working! However, a friendly cuttlefish, some pygmy squid and more crustaceans made the dive memorable still. Can I get to photograph a Denise pygmy with only two dives left?? I really hope so…
We finished our diving in Raja Ampat at Tank Rock and Boo West. I was advised both dives would be preferably wide angle. I knew I needed to stick to macro though, with seeing three Denise pygmies previously while shooting wide angle. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity before I left Raja Ampat. Then, as the dive started, I began to lose hope once again. Skeleton shrimp filled the sea fans once more and I thought that would be enough to scare any seahorse to another site. BUT!! It wasn’t long before my guide Aghi worked his magic and found a beautiful little Denise pygmy seahorse for me to photograph. Phew!!! The pressure was off for the dive early on, but now I just needed to get a photo of these difficult to photograph critters. Skeleton shrimp were still sharing the sea fan with the seahorse and parts of them tended to get in the way but without a nice composition of both. I did manage to get some decent in focus shots and my diving in Raja Ampat was complete. Mission successful for another new species for me. An orangutan crab and some nice photos of the skeleton shrimp completed the dive before a switch back to wide angle for Boo West.
While the visibility wasn’t great (but not terrible) for the final dive, it was another stunning dive in paradise, with once again amazing sea fans littering the reef wall in pristine condition. Then came my favourite schooling fish to see, as what must have been around a hundred batfish/spadefish were seen cruising in the current. Such an amazing sight, with a couple of blacktip reef sharks also coming to say goodbye. The real surprise and the memorable moment of the dive came from a tiny cuttlefish that was just bobbing around in the blue away from the reef. I really wasn’t expecting to see it there, as I caught it in the corner of my eye. It took me a second to confirm I wasn’t seeing things but sure enough it was there. It was super friendly and came right up to my mask and I can only hope it stayed safe away from the protection of the reef once we left.
I’d been desperate to visit Raja Ampat for so long and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. La Galigo was the perfect vessel, with the perfect hosts to explore the area with that really made my time extra special. It’s certainly a place I won’t just want to visit once. I could see myself returning again and again and still being amazed by all the things I’d see. I ticked off so many new species in this biodiversity hotspot and took countless photos.
I now had a long journey home of two days, with 22 hours in Jakarta airport. I wasn’t fazed though, as I had so many photos to go through to keep me entertained and those memories kept me smiling throughout the journey. I’d recommend everyone (not just divers) to put Raja Ampat on your travel bucket list. It really is a true paradise and I can perfectly understand where the nickname – “The Last Paradise” comes from.
For more information about diving in Raja Ampat:
Whatsapp: +62 812 2000 2025
Ultimate Raja Ampat – The Last Paradise (Part 2 of 3)
I’m hoping by now that you would have read the first part of my Ultimate Raja Ampat story with La Galigo Liveaboard. If not, then please check out Part 1 HERE. We really started with a bang and visited some incredible dive sites in the first few days. The amount of fish life seen on the dives was incredible and I could only hope the rest of the trip would continue to deliver.
I didn’t have to wait long before another unforgettable dive for the very first the next day. We were aiming for ‘Manta Ridge’ and as the name suggests, we were looking for the majestic manta rays. The anticipation was bursting as I love spending time with manta rays and the guides had already alluded to the fact they saw them on the current check. The current was strong and reef hooks were advised once we got to the ridge.
My group was the last in and as we worked our way along the ridge towards the cleaning station, it wasn’t long before a manta came into view. I managed to find a great spot to hook into and enjoyed the most amazing show. Stunning reef manta rays glided over my head within touching distance before hovering over the reef as they were cleaned thoroughly by black lip butterflyfish and other small fishes. This was how we spent most the dive at around only 10 metres before moving back along the ridge and shallowing up on top of the reef to hook in for our safety stop. HOWEVER, the best was yet to come for me personally, as I was reluctant to leave and dawdled behind the group, continually checking over my shoulder, until there it was…
This was what I was hoping to see on my trip to Raja and to be close enough to get a photo I was truly happy with. I’d seen black manta rays before, but never close enough for a decent photo, now suddenly the opportunity presented itself. I saw my group just metres away hook onto the reef at 5-6 metres and I felt protected from the worst of the current, as this majestic manta suddenly glided within just a couple of metres of me. I couldn’t believe the interaction I was getting and it felt like I was completely alone with it for this short moment. It glided along the reef while getting cleaned before circling a couple of times within touching distance. I just kept shooting and hoping the photos were coming out ok, while my adrenalin was pumping through my body for one of the best manta ray encounters I’ve had. Thankfully I was more than happy with the images I got and the memories were even greater.
It was only day four and I had already ticked off some real Raja Ampat bucket list moments. The pressure was certainly off but the day continued in style and showed the diversity of life here. After a second dive at Mayhem with numerous resting wobbegongs and an overly friendly hawksbill turtle, it was time to mix it up on the third dive and go small, really small. Raja Ampat is famous for pygmy seahorses, as it’s an incredible place for numerous healthy sea fans. I’d been advised you have the chance to see them on pretty much every dive, making it so hard to choose between macro and wide angle with the incredible choice here. For dive three though, I was advised Hippocampus bargibanti had been seen on the previous trip and I opted for macro. It didn’t disappoint and I was so happy to see the super cute bargibanti seahorses once again and have the chance to photograph them. Followed by one of my favourite critters no matter how many times I see them – the peacock mantis shrimp. I love it when a plan comes together!!
It was now time to head to the most northern part of the itinerary – Wayag. Famous for its stunning landscape and lagoon, I was really looking forward to mixing it up and taking a break from diving. Our first adventure of the day would be a trek up Wayag Lagoon instead of diving, although I couldn’t resist a quick swim with the blacktip reef sharks that were circling the boat before the trek.
The trek in itself was an interesting adventure. I wasn’t expecting it to be difficult and presumed it was stairs but I soon realised it wouldn’t be that easy. It made it much more fun though, as we navigated the footholds and scrambled up the formations in the limestone. The limestone can get quite sharp and you really have to have your concentration in check on this climb, but it is more than manageable for any fitness level if you take your time. It is only a short 20-minute hike but took longer due to being mesmerised by the incredible views with each step higher. One of the most stunning views I’ve been lucky enough to lay my eyes on. The different shades of blue of the glass like sea broken up by lush green rainforest covering the limestone islands. It’s so cliché to say “the view took my breath away” but there’s no other way to describe the scene.
Diving around Wayag was all about macro critters for me. Two more day dives followed where again nudibranch of all shapes, size and colour made appearances. Our guide Aghi was brilliant at finding the really small flabellina variety. Squat lobsters, crabs and shrimps were the crustaceans keeping me entertained before one of the best night dives ever. Terserah Point is a sloping white sand dive looking for the weird and wonderful. Bobtail squid were seen in great numbers and were another first for me, with a long arm octopus, cuttlefish and decorator crab also putting on a show before the grand finale. The charismatic coconut octopus dazzling with its colours and tentacle show, while trying its best to hide between two shells. Again, another first for me, which was becoming quite the norm on this trip. Even having a close call with a box jellyfish right at the end of the dive, it got the adrenalin going but again another cool critter to see and my first.
The next couple of days we started to head south again, as we were aiming for the area around Misool Island and the marine reserve. We stopped at Kawe, Aljuy and Penemu along the way and the dives were all about the stunning coral that Raja Ampat is famous for. While also trying to see manta rays again at Eagle Rock 1. Unfortunately, the dive didn’t deliver mantas, although it was a stunning site with hawksbill turtle, wobbegong and the only banded sea krait I saw on a dive on the trip. However, we just happened to be diving the wrong island at Eagle Rock and when we surfaced, we saw mantas from the boat and took the opportunity to swim with them as six swam past at the surface. One bigger manta continued to circle a coral pinnacle beneath us – enough for another manta fix!
The swim throughs at Wofoh South and Batu Rufus provided stunning photography opportunities with amazing topography. The dancing anchovy school mesmerised, and the coral formations were breathtaking on all dives, none more so than the beautiful Melissa’s Garden. This was a relaxing dive on top of some of the best hard coral gardens I’ve seen. Anthias danced in and out with Napoleon wrasse a constant sight throughout. It was also another amazing dive for nudibranch, quite the popular macro subject in Raja Ampat. Pianemo trek on the morning of day seven was again a welcome break from diving and something different to enjoy and see the amazing scenery from a vantage point. A much easier trek, as a well-maintained staircase leads you up to the viewpoint over the lagoon. Breathtaking views were waiting, while meeting local villagers and buying fresh coconuts provided welcome company from our liveaboard bubble.
While all these sites were truly special, it was again the night dive that stole the show for me. Another sloping white sand dive but this time at Wofoh North. Again, it was all about the weird and wonderful, as the guides alluded to it being a great place for wunderpus octopus. I was keeping my fingers crossed, as it was another new species for me to see and as it happened, I didn’t have to wait long into the dive. There it was, sitting perfectly still in the sand, no bigger than the palm of my hand and guess who found it? Yes!! That’s right! I was so excited to spot it in the sand myself, although it took me a second to make sure it definitely was an octopus. What an amazing dive this was for the whole 50 minutes. Another wunderpus was found, that was actually still in its larval stage; an amazing find. Spearing mantis shrimp, nudibranch, sea moths, bobtail squid, devil scorpionfish and more were just the tip of the iceberg on another amazing night dive.
This place just continued to deliver with its amazing biodiversity and it was now time to head south on a 16 hour crossing heading close to Misool Island. Stay tuned for our adventures on the final four days diving the south.
For more information about diving in Raja Ampat:
Whatsapp: +62 812 2000 2025