When I first arrived in South Korea, and was in contact with the former English teacher I was replacing at my school, she told me that if I travel around Korea, travel with Pedro Kim. I didn’t understand her advice at first, but one afternoon Melanie was searching Facebook and found an ad for a trip to Geoje Island through Lonely Korea, and sure enough, there was Pedro’s name as the trip leader. I’ll start by saying that, if you’re planning on visiting South Korea, or are new to the country and don’t know how to get around, travel with Pedro Kim. He has more contacts around the country than I can imagine, and knows how to plan ahead and make sure everything is taken care of, whether it be accommodations, food, entry fees, transportation…you name it, he’s already thought of it. And you can’t go wrong with the prices. One thing I’ve learned since moving to South Korea is that it’s unbelievably cheap to get around here, at least as compared to North America. The buses are fast, on-time, and clean (although they don’t have on-board restrooms, but the bus will usually make a few pit stops along the way), there is no hassle with security checkpoints, invasive baggage searches, X-ray scanning, etc. etc. etc., and with the exception of some of the smaller settlements in the less-populated provinces, almost the entire country is accessible by public transportation.
So when we saw a two-day, one-night stay at Geoje Island (거제시), all expenses paid for only 138,000 won each (about $140 USD), we were sold. We were slated to stay in a small pension (a type of Korean hostel, but more resembles a B&B in style and facilities) right on the shore, with access to a small private pebble beach. The trip also included a ferry ride around the famous Haegeumgang (거제해금강), massive rock formation just off the coast of Geoje Island, and a stop at the botanical gardens on Oedo Island (외도 보타니아-해상관광농원).
With our itinerary set and bags packed, Melanie and I met our bus at the U+ Square Terminal in downtown Gwangju early Saturday morning. There were about 30 people registered for this trip, the majority of them foreign English teachers from Gwangju and Yeosu, and there were about a half-dozen of our friends from our orientation group going as well. The ride out to Geoje took about 3½ hours, following the Honam Expressway along the southern coast. We arrived at Geoje around 1pm that afternoon and stopped at a famous Indian restaurant in Jangpyeong-dong. This section of Geoje has a large foreigner population, and hosts some well-known and delicious foreign cuisine restaurants. Since leaving Ottawa in February, Melanie and I were craving Indian food once again, so this was a special treat and welcome change from kimchi and rice.
After lunch, we had a few minutes to enjoy the harbor in Jangpyeong-dong before heading on to our destination in Nambu-myeon, on the other side of the island. Geoje Island hosts several major shipbuilding ports, and serves as the center of the Korean shipbuilding industry. The major builders are Hyundai and Samsung Heavy Industries (SHI), and Korean-built cargo ships are among the best in the world. The restaurant was situated near the SHI Shipyard, and we could see two large cargo ships still under construction in the harbor. The tide must have been out, because the water was down, creating some mudflats near the harborfront. There were three smallish gulls near the shore, which I quickly identified as slaty-backed gulls. A fourth gull was flying around, quite lighter on the mantle than the others. Getting a good look at the primaries, which had a large white spot on the first and second primary, surrounded by a dark black fading to light grey, I realized it was a mew gull of the kamchatschensis subspecies. The harbor had more surprises in store, including several eastern spot-billed ducks further out in the shallows, accompanying a pair of northern pintails and mallards. A little egret and grey heron skulked close to the rocky shore looking for food. As I was watching the ducks, a large-billed crow flew in and began picking at a piece of dried seaweed. It was then that I noticed a small shorebird scuttling in and out of the rocks near the harbor. A quick look through the binoculars revealed it to be a little ringed plover. Just a few minutes by a harbor brought in four lifers! Before getting on the bus, I noticed a single horned grebe way out in the harbor, diving for food on its own. We boarded the bus fully satisfied by our meal, and by the good fortune in birds.
We continued our journey to Nambu-myeon, taking a winding road into the mountains at the center of the island. The views were spectacular, especially when a sharp curve on the road would suddenly reveal a glorious panorama of the island, showing the rocky coasts jutting out of a clear blue ocean. The roads were very narrow and there were few pull-offs large enough to accommodate a parked bus, but the views were incredible and I give a lot of credit to the driver for being able to maneuver the monstrous bus on such a treacherous roadway.
At last we arrived in Nambu-myeon, and unloaded our things into our rooms. Melanie and I were paired with another couple from Gwangju, and our room was on the second floor of the pension, with a beautiful view of the ocean with rocky outcrops jutting up from the water. It was nearing the evening hours by the time we were settled and unpacked, so I grabbed my binoculars and camera and headed down to the private beach to have a look around. There was a few Korean families on the beach, but it was mostly empty save for about two dozen large-billed crows picking at a pile of garbage near a boat ramp. I would discover during this trip that large-billed crows were the dominate species on the island, easily being the most common bird I saw during the trip.
There were no shorebirds on the beach, but I did manage to find a great crested grebe diving close to shore. Every so often it would resurface and let me get a few quick photos before moving out to deeper water. Looking further offshore, I found several more great crested grebes and a single Pacific loon near a large rock outcropping on the other side of the bay. I loved watching the grebe – it reminded me so much of the western and Clark’s grebes I had seen in Nevada back in 2011, just by the shape of the neck and the long bill. It’s interesting that the great crested grebe, being in the genus Podiceps, is more closely related to the diminutive pied-billed grebe than either the western or Clark’s grebes (genus Aechmophorus) that it so closely resembles.
A group of us decided to take a walk through Nambu-myeon, checking out some more of the village and seeing more of the rocky coastline before nightfall. There wasn’t much variety in bird life at this hour, and the only other species of note that I saw was a single white wagtail on another private beach along the way, more large-billed crows, and a handful of Eurasian tree sparrows. But what was lacking in wildlife was made up for with amazing venues of rock and water. The coastline of Geoje Island is amazing: sheer cliffs of rock dropping into the ocean in every direction. The setting sun gave us plenty of chances to make a study on the effect of dwindling light on rock. There are times I wish I would give up the chase and become a landscape photographer – the landscape doesn’t move or get startled and fly away. Thoughts like these are usually short-lived, or forgotten entirely when my eye catches something small and feathery dart out from the periphery.
The sun set on the first day of our adventure. Our group spent the evening enjoying a barbeque on the pension patio, overlooking the private beach. A few of us stayed up late to roast marshmallows over an open fire pit. As we went to bed, the promise of a new day (and new birds) awaited…