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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Strange and Wonderful Creatures: Snorkeling at Odo

It has been nearly one whole year since I started snorkeling at Jeju Island and we bought gear to continue our ocean adventures locally.  Of course, we couldn't snorkel here in Pohang during the cold season (roughly October to June), but now we're BACK. It's not the Philippines (snorkeling heaven in January; shoutout to Justin and Leanne at Paniolo Guesthouse), but even the home of South Korea's steel industry (a larger and less smelly version of Gary, IN) has some interesting sea life, which is really the purpose of putting one's body into maritime danger.

Kristina:  Texan, friend, photographer, snorkel buddy.
Today I ended up snorkeling with Kristina (you may remember her here). She's 20 years my junior, which means Koreans assume we're a mother/daughter duo; they are very, VERY confused when we say no, we're friends.  (In Korea, the word "friend" really means "age mate."  You can't be friends with people older or younger because of status and language differences based on age).  I kind of like keeping folks on their toes.  :)

ANYWAY. Last season, Nick and I cataloged about 20 species of fish who swam with us at local beaches, plus other creatures like sea hares, spiny urchins, anemones, crabs, eels, jellyfish and a bunch of different mollusks (whelks, mussels, periwinkles, etc.).  Once we saw two baby shrimp, which may be the cutest things in the sea: just imagine swimming in a Pixar movie.  After several trips, we saw the same few kinds of creatures again and again and again which is like visiting old friends: comforting but rarely exciting.  Then after our Philippines trip, I was a little hesitant/reluctant to go back into the (boring) waters of Steel City.  (Then again, this is WAY better than any snorkeling in Iowa.)

But today.... Ah, today.  Today, Kristina and I scored THREE ENTIRELY NEW (to us) sea creatures. Allow me to set the scene.  I know it's taking forever to get to the point, but be patient.

We originally set out to photograph fishing villages; these quaint traditional areas are fast being abandoned for high-rise apartments in the city (eew.). After stopping at a few places, we soon realized that the ocean was flat...FLAT. We'd never seen anything like it: it was perfect for snorkeling and we could do photos on land any old time.  A quick trip home to get our gear and back we went to the beach at Odo-ri.

Look at that glassy water.  And the anachronistic Mondrian-style building decor in the harbor.
And these sassy ladies cleaning fishing nets.  

In our rush, we forgot to grab some anti-fog agent (a.k.a. travel-sized shampoo), and I'm reluctant to spit in my goggles (I know it works, but still.  Yuck.).  I remembered that the snorkel guy in Jeju picked sook for us; this common Korean plant (a.k.a. mugwort; a.k.a. stubborn garden weed) has miraculous anti-fog properties. So we picked some growing by the road, rubbed it on our goggles, and into the glassy water we finally went.

Spring time in the ocean apparently means everything is having sex and babies. Wow - slimy eggs sacs waved about like spiderwebby purses; orange egg ribbons dotted the plants; giant schools of baby fish just hung out, waiting to grow up. (You can swim right through schools of 10,000+ fish and not touch a single one - their flock mentality is pretty amazing.)
Sea hare photo from
We saw some sea hares (think giant slugs made passably cute by their long "ears"), some larger fish, and spiny urchins among the rocks (being collected by some young men for their beach lunch. Eew.).  We were happy to see a relatively large crab (at 6" across, it was far larger than the common 1-inch versions that skitter along the beach) but respectfully left it and its claws alone.

As Kristina and I swam along (have I mentioned the joy of a buoyant body?  I am an effortless athlete in this briny arena), we spotted an inexplicable object near the surface.  About 5" long, this completely transparent and somewhat flattened rectangular object had, well, a set of electrified rainbows inside of it.  I mentally ruled out the reasonable explanations (e.g., tiny neon signs in a ziploc bag) and was left with, well, nothing.  What in the world could this be?  Was it even alive? We spent some time looking at it, having enough wisdom not to touch a mysterious electrical thing while swimming (hey - childhood safety education WORKS), when we suddenly realized it was moving deliberately toward us (where "us" here means "my face"); I noticed its weird head, vaguely shaped like a plenaria (thanks, biology class) or a hammerhead shark (no thanks, Shark Week).  We quickly (and perhaps a tiny bit hysterically) whooshed it (snorkel jargon for "madly pushed water to re-establish a comfortable zone of personal space").  Later, after much research ("neon baggie ocean" might not have been the most efficient Google search phrase), I finally identified this as a comb jellyfish.  Which was kind of a disappointing name.  As though someone thought this creature was as common and as boring as a pocket comb.  Thus, I shall recommend to the International Jellyfish Naming Association some better options, like "Prism Jelly" or "Rainbow Glory" or maybe even "Rock-a-jelly." Anything, really, would be better.  Comb jelly.  Harummph.

A "comb jelly."  Photo from montereybayaquarium
A short time later I noticed some unusual movement about 10' below me, among the rocks. And then I saw, for the first time ever in the wild (rather than at a grocery store or market stall or public aquarium), an octopus. He/she was absolutely camouflaged against a rock but had been detected by the neighboring fish, who acted like crows harassing a hawk.  Kristina and I dove to get closer looks; its head was a bit smaller than a softball and its fish-smacking tentacles were maybe 10" long.  It was completely unimpressed with us, even when we tossed some shells near it and when I moved its rock (which might or might not have accidentally rolled over its head).  Even close up, knowing exactly where it was, my brain could not see this thing until it moved.  Finally tiring of all the harassment, he (she?) finally escaped under another rock, either out of reach or out of sight.  It was hard to tell.

What an amazing morning. Tired, happy, and getting cold, we headed back toward the beach to find a coffee shop (kaw-pee, as it's pronounced here). Moving out of the rock zone back to the shallower sandy area, I spotted a strange blob amid the grasses waving below us.  At first I took it to be a large sea hare until some part of my mind realized that it was vibrating.  Like a football-sized hovercraft on a doily, with rapidly undulating edges. Oh. Oh my.  It was a cuttlefish, which is the cuddly cousin of the octopus.  I had only seen these in videos (not counting the cuttlebones I'd found while beachcombing).  I dove for a closer look and as I got within arm's reach, it turned its strange, huge eyes toward me.  It is an unsettling feeling indeed to be an intruder in an alien's land (oops - an alien's waters) and then to be noticed by said alien, who looks into your eyes and then makes a decision of some sort. I think we both held our breaths for that instant (literally AND figuratively) before Cuttlefish shot away, instantly changing his/her color and texture to precisely match the sandy bottom it now glided above.  I was astonished at its quick-change: like clicking a new filter option on a digital photo. What a stunning creature.

cuttlefish photo from darwinsreef pbworks
Well, what did we learn today, dear readers?  Perhaps you've concluded that Pohang's waters are well worth continued exploration. I would tend to agree.  However, for those who've read this far, you might share some of my caution once you see what our sassy fisher ladies pulled out of their nets...:
That is an anglerfish.  With sharp pointy teeth.
And a strong trigger for instant panic upon which was based
the scariest movie scene in animation history...:

P.S. If you might enjoy some hilarious (if sometimes crude) science videos about the octopus, cuttlefish, anglerfish, and other creatures, check out Ze Frank's "True Facts" video series.   You'll learn far more (in a far shorter time) than you ever did in biology class.  :)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

West vs. East: Scaring the Ajummas

You may remember, dear reader, that upon moving to Korea I most feared the ajummas. These flocks of stern, middle-aged ladies of floral prints and short-haired perms control the campus and the nation. Hidden behind their summer visors, scarves, and arm sleeves, I was nervous about their wrath should I violate Korean rules from grass-walking to the size of my belly.  I recently learned the Korean phrase to describe their attitude:  “oh jee rahb” (오지랍) roughly means “what you’re doing is not my business but I will offer my opinion anyway.”  Humph.

But the tables have apparently turned. And thus I share 3 stories.

(1) Community Gardening: An ex-pat friend has told her husband’s Korean office staff that they could pick herbs and veggies in her community garden plot while their family is away. One morning, two ajummas had come up to the garden to check out the plants. And they reported back to my friend: “two scary Western ladies” were up there and they were too afraid to come into the garden. Oh. Oh my. I blame Tracey. 

Is it her scary hat?

Or my scary XL Cheerios t-shirt?

(2) Nature:
Elisabeth and I went out one morning to install an in-ground bug trap for a school project. While digging a hole for her near the laundry building, I discovered worms – WORMS! – of Iowan size and extreme wiggle energy. These are rare finds in this limestone mountain clime! I had to have them. Grabbing them up in one hand, I noticed an ajumma walking by in her grounds-keeping uniform and wanted to know the Korean word for “worm.” So I gestured with my writhing hand and politely asked “mo-wah ai-oh?” She took one look, squealed, and pranced away. Hee hee hee….

(3) Hallway: In the mornings, I often walk with the kids to school or go down to the lobby to get my newspaper. Sometimes one of the kids wins the “get ready” race and darts down the hall to summon the elevator; if I’m running too far behind, I might just shout “I love you!” down the echoing hallway and away they go. Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially perky, I will catch our door then silently race after the kids (my robe flapping and hair flying) for a surprise hug just before they step onto the elevator. A few days ago, I did the latter. And as I ran like the wind down the hall, my bare feet lightly smacking the tile floor (it’s my story, I can imagine it the way I want to), I heard an odd sound behind me. Impossible: we live at the end of the hall our neighbors are out of the country, and Nick had long since gone to work. So my body hurtled silently down the hall and around the corner to surprise Elisabeth, my head swiveled and my eyes saw that behind me, just emerging from behind our apartment door where I had thrown it wide and nearly trapped her against the wall, was a very shocked ajumma. She had apparently been sweeping outside our apartment when I burst out, oblivious to her eyewitness perspective. And as I hugged Elisabeth, I could hear quiet giggling from the direction of my apartment, so I just smiled as I passed her on my return trip.

I am Western Woman! Fear me, ajummas!