Friday, October 29, 2010


While i was swimming around Jeju i wish i had a swim cam. You know - a camera attached to my head so people could see exactly what i could see. If i had such a device the seas might be cleaner than what they are. I knew the sea around Jeju wasn't great; you just have to visit any beach to realise that. Nevertheless, i really wasn't prepared for the reality of what i saw. As i don't have a swim cam, i will just have to tell you.

The water i swam through smelled. And it smelled bad. Sometimes it smelled of sewerage, sometimes it smelled of oil and fuel, and sometimes it smelled of dead rotting fish. In some places it smelled of all those things together, like at Hengwon and at Pyeoson. Rather ironically, the only place where the sea DIDN'T smell bad was near Gangjeong, where the powers-that-be want to build a Naval base. The waters around Gangjeong smelled (and tasted!) like the ocean should - clean, "fresh", and salty.

I swam through a lot of garbage. Sometimes Steve had to call out so i wouldn't swim headlong into a plastic bag or an empty oil container floating in a pile of muck. But what was more disturbing was just how much garbage was under the surface, distributed throughout the water column as far as i could see. In too many places i would look down and see ramyeon bowls, drink cans, ice cream wrappers, cigarette lighters (!), foil and plastic packaging, plastic bottles and bottle caps, plastic forks and spoons, chopsticks and chopstick wrappers. I saw frightening amounts of polystyrene foam,  hundreds and hundreds of paper cups, and thousands of plastic bags, in every state of deterioration from whole bags to small fragments. And i saw plastic, plastic and more plastic. I was shocked and saddened to see small schools of fish eating it. Of course they will die.

Swimming at Hamdeok Beach with plastic bag, can, polystyrene foam and other detritus
(Photo Alicia Cabezuda)

Talking of fish, i didn't see a lot. And what fish i did see were all very small. One effect of overfishing is that the fish in affected areas don't survive long enough to grow into big, healthy breeders. The result is a less resilient fish population that matures younger, is smaller and weaker, and  produces fewer eggs. Sad to say, Jeju has over-exploited and very depleted fish stocks.

When you experience Jeju from the sea, as i did, it soon becomes apparent that there is very little of Jeju's "natural" environment left. Evidence of habitat destruction is everywhere.  It was very rare to not see a road, a building or a harbour all along the coast. 

Pyeoson Beach is representative of the kind of habitat destruction i'm talking about. It is often referred to as "tourism development". If you go there you can see that this area was once an estuary surrounded by sand dunes. Sand dune estuarine areas are home to particularly rich and diverse eco-systems. It has been completely annihilated. The creeks and streams have been built over and are now drains whilst the sand dunes have been flattened to make roads, carparks and picnic areas. All the plants and animals that made up that eco-system are no more.

Probably the most upsetting thing i saw during the whole swim was the way hundreds and hundreds of people picnicking on the grass at Pyeoson made no effort to take their rubbish with them when they left. To get to the beach to swim i had to walk, literally ankle deep, through the previous night's litter - pizza boxes, take away food containers, plastic bags, plastic bottles, broken glass, ramyeon bowls, drink cans, empty cigarette packets, ice cream wrappers, and so on.

It is this mindset and behaviour that The Jeju Big Swim hopes to change.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010



The Jeju Big Swim - what an adventure! But everyone needs to know that though i swam, and Steve kayaked, it wasn't just us. So here's a rundown on what it took to make The Jeju Big Swim.

In the beginning i didn't know if i really could swim around Jeju. I'd read about a guy, Martin Strehl, who had swum the Amazon. His swim inspired me to think seriously about swimming around Jeju as a way to raise environmental awareness. Martin Strehl was older (and fatter!) than me so i figured that if he could swim the Amazon, then maybe i could swim around Jeju - but i wasn't sure. So Arni Highfield and his family, visiting Jeju on their yacht Jade, offered to help me find out. Accompanied by Arni in a dinghy with the dinkiest outboard i've ever seen, and dodging some humongous jellyfish, i swam from Kimnyoung Harbour to Kimnyoung Beach, a distance of just over 2 kilometres. I knew then that swimming around Jeju was a do-able project.

I started training in the Ramada Hotel Sports Centre pool with help from swimming coach Kim Hyo Jin, and eventually met Steve Oberhauser, a white water rafting, mountain man from America, and soon to be the owner of a pretty, two-person, bright yellow sea kayak. The Jeju Big Swim Team was born.

Web pages, blogs, Facebook and Twitter are essential to a project like ours. However, being completely clueless about such things it was Justin Nalepa and Nicole Erwin who finally got us sorted. Justin and Nicole are STILL getting us sorted! And Lisa Caraway, despite crossing 3 continents, made our webpage. We finally had a presence on the www! Kenny Kim was in charge of the K-blog. He started off posting translated material we emailed to him but before long he was taking the material himself, translating it, and posting on the K-blog.

In the beginning Sung Mi was our media liaison person. But soon she was contacting people about money and sponsorship, setting up meetings and acting as translator. Sung Mi has been in on The Jeju Big Swim since the beginning and she has done a fantastic job.

As interest in the project grew Sung Mi, by this time taking final exams, was struggling to keep up with everything that was going on and we realised we needed a dedicated translator. Jisu joined the team - and we are so glad she did! Jisu's skills lay not just in her English language abilities, but in the way she could communicate in a way that culturally, both Koreans and us foreigners could understand. Now that's a skill!

Jessie Dishaw put together an Open Mic night for us. People came and that event not only helped spread the word about what we wanted to do, it raised over 400,000 won.

Major sponsorship was proving elusive so we were ecstatic when Prof Koh and Kim Miran invited us to swim as one of the official events of the 2010 World Environment and Peace Summer School. Under the umbrella of such a great organisation and with their promise of substantial funding we finally started to believe that The Jeju Big Swim would really happen. We were especially heartened when KCTV presented us with a cheque for 1 million won. After more rejections than we cared to think about, we had finally found a Jeju business willing to do more than just pay lip service to Jeju and its environment.

However, as we were to find out, that was just the beginning. Jeju girl, Hong Sunyoung, though living in England, put the word out to all her Jeju friends. They rallied to our cause providing us with in-kind practical support and much needed safety equipment. Jeju business woman Ra Jung Im not only put her office at our disposal for meetings, but spent considerable time, energy and money to provide us with distress flares. Yang Gi Jung gave us a first aid kit and Nuri Mart contributed snacks and drinks. Mr Yang of the Samyang Family Mart provided us with several Cass beer bags that proved extremely useful for stowing our gear on board the kayak.

Father Jerry Cotter demonstrated tremendous support for us by leading a "Blessing of the Fleet" ceremony attended by many supporters and well-wishers and the media.

The media started to take an interest thanks to friend and 해남 Lee Han Young in Seoul, and Sung Mi did a great job organising and coordinating all the interviews. In support of my training i had been given free gym membership by the generous people at the Ramada Sports Centre however a rather serendipitous meeting with Sarah Crivelli and Suzie Grace on Samyang Beach at just the right time got me out of the pool and training in the sea. I was getting fitter, i had the full support of my school, and start day was fast approaching......