YOU CAN DIVE IN KOREA…?” This is the response I usually get from people when I tell them about my three and a half years spent instructing scuba-divers in the country.
Often this will be accompanied by a puzzled expression as they dig deep into their memory for anything they may have heard in the past about diving in this part of Asia.
To start with, yes, you can dive in Korea. The country is surrounded by water, with the exception of the heavily armed border that divides the north and south. Because North Korea is off limits to the south, it is much like being on an island. Referred to as “the hermit nation”, its dive scene, like many aspects of its culture, is little known-about outside the country.
Historically, South Korea has maintained a strong relationship with the ocean, but this bond is based largely on (ab)using the sea as a food source.
As well as the extensive industrial fishing that takes place, Koreans also have a traditional technique for harvesting their seas.
For centuries Haenyeo, who are essentially freedivers, have braved the frigid temperatures of their surrounding waters. Equipped with a mask, fins, a basic spear or knife, a net bag attached to a float and a rope to assist with descents and ascents, these sturdy individuals spend the day duck-diving for anything from clams to octopus.
Their catch is then sold to the scores of seafood restaurants or fish-markets found in abundance up and down the country.
So there is water and you can dive there, but what is it like?
In truth, even if it were possible, I feel it would be unfair to classify Korean diving as either good or bad.
A variety of elements can present challenging conditions for people more accustomed to fairer waters. It can be hard work diving in Korea but, on a good day, that hard work really pays off.
It transpired that my UK dive training and experience prepared me well for what Korea had to offer. I was based in Busan, a city on the south coast with a population of around 3.5 million people. And in general, diving for much of the year was not for the faint-hearted.
Perilously rocky beach entrances lead to dark murky water where your fins are often not visible. At best, divers off Taejongdae beach get to enjoy 10m of clarity.
Elsewhere, visibility stretches from non-existent up to 30m. Depending on whether you are east, south or west and at which time of year you are in the water, temperatures range from 3°C up to a high of 25°.
Bracing thermoclines and ripping currents are common. My years were typically spent trying to dive around typhoons, monsoons, rainy seasons, yellow dust (a visible pollution that drifts over from China) and snowy winters.
I found it interesting that despite the challenging elements, Korea has a strong dive scene. It is a rapidly growing market for certification agencies, dominated by PADI and SSI, though I also encountered a cluster of BSAC clubs.
The cultural norm is to undertake activities as a group, and for this reason dive-clubs and the excursions they offer are very successful.
It is in this fashion that divers living in the colossal, built-up cities make their trips to lesser-populated, rural areas to enjoy far better conditions.

MANY KOREANS ARE DRAWN to the ocean by their love of fresh seafood. Because of over-fishing, there is limited opportunity to spear anything sizeable. As such, it is common for divers to take nets and tools for removing anything that still clings to the rocky surface.
Embracing a “look don’t touch” approach made our international dive-club stand out from the others, the members of which couldn't see the point of entering the water if not to hunt.
When teaching courses, I would need an interpreter to describe to the boat captain exactly what we needed in terms of depths and other requirements.
We would then cram ourselves into a boat packed with underwater hunters and start our journey to the site.
Along the way, at seemingly random intervals, hunters would roll backwards over the inflatable sides, the outboard motor slowing down only momentarily to lessen the impact.
The solo-divers would be picked up an hour later, one by one, as the boat made its way back to port, having collected us from our predetermined exit point.
I will always remember one particularly angry “undersea hunter” who had made such an entrance, unfortunately without his weight-belt. The diver’s cries to get the attention of the boat captain went unheard, resulting in him floating around on the surface for more than an hour in his drysuit before being picked up again.
Unfortunately, the ensuing disharmony between traditional Haenyeo and scuba-divers has a tendency to manifest itself, sometimes to the point of physical force.
While out on a dive, a buddy of mine had a Haenyeo, angered by the extent to which the ocean is ravaged by scuba-divers, sneak up on him and pull his mask off and reg out.
I am only too aware of how fishermen view scuba-divers, having had one deliberately drop an anchor on me while I was guiding a dive around a pretty island called Goeje Do. Miraculously, the anchor missed us by a couple of feet.
Divers encounter a variety of attractions in the rocky underwater terrain. Artificial reefs have been created using giant concrete cubes, and these underwater climbing-frames resemble playgrounds, which are enjoyed by groups of giant octopus.
On the south-west corner of the coastline, dive-clubs frequently visit small fishing villages on the outskirts of Pohang. Here they find underwater statues such as a Buddha set in a cave, a Virgin Mary and, oddly enough, a 2m-high concrete phallus.
On investigating the latter, I learned that this was an offering to the angry spirit of a lady who was swept out to sea on her wedding day. Her screams can apparently be heard in the storms that, as legend has it, she creates in her frustrated state. Such phallic statues can also be found on dry land.
Nearby, giant octopus starfish slowly crawl around two nameless wrecked fishing-boats. Heading further north to Uljin, divers will be rewarded with a section of coastline littered with wrecks. On the other end of the scale, macro-lovers can find an astonishing array of colourful nudibranchs.
The national gem is Jeju island. Set some 100 miles from the mainland, it is a 45-minute hop away by plane.
This honeymoon destination is southerly enough to be home to tropical fish as well as their coldwater relatives.
Jeju has an abundance of colourful soft coral and kelp gardens. Operations here offer the chance for people without certification to try diving, as it is sufficiently distanced from the harsher conditions of the mainland.
Beginners are sometimes taken in to the water without fins to make them easier for an instructor to tow around. Just when I thought I could no longer be surprised, while diving around Jeju one day I encountered a group of four finless people, tied together and being dragged around by a guide!

SCUBA ENTHUSIASTS in Korea can take advantage of their location to explore surrounding countries. From Seoul it's easy to fly to an abundance of world-class dive destinations including Palau, the Philippines, Thailand and Guam.
As diving increases in popularity, more Korean-owned dive centres are opening in these locations to keep up with the trend.
I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to live somewhere truly off the beaten path of dive tourism. In South Korea, I experienced a completely different way of living and diving.
Some marine life I found particularly fascinating include Nomura’s jellyfish, the world’s largest cnidarian, weighing up to 220kg; the giant octopus; sea-hares that follow the cold water; and the flying gurnard that swim/fly/run throughout the sand flats.
Korea is unlike anywhere else, but as the younger generations continue to embrace western culture its identity will change. A different attitude to the ocean and its inhabitants will be a good thing, but having said that I know I'm lucky to have seen the country above and below water in its present form.
I became a diver and traveller because of my passion for adventure. Living and diving in Korea provided excitement – diving in a manner so abstracted from anywhere else reminded me of the thrill I enjoyed on my first-ever dives.