For a 50-year-old man, he surely does seem awfully excited to hear about giant stingrays and dugongs that look like hippos. For avid scuba divers within the Korean community, the name Se-hwa Park must sound familiar.
Park has been scuba diving for 30 years now, but whenever he engages himself in conversations about his outdoor activities, he also resembles a young boy who is on his first date. So it almost seemed meaningless to ask Park about why he loves to throw himself into the water at every opportunity. The better way to get to know him was to simply listen to his 30-year experience as a scuba diver.
#The boy who loved the ocean
Born in Yeongdeok, South Korea, water has always been a part of Park’s life. However, such a common nature had always been an aspiration for him.
“I saw scuba divers for the first time when I was in middle school,” Park said. “It was shocking in a refreshing way. I think I’ve begun to pique an interest in what’s inside the ocean since then.”
After graduating high school, Park became a member of the scuba diving club at Kyungil University in 1987.
“The club at the time did not have sufficient conditions for scuba divers,” Kim said, laughing. “We had more than 10 members, but only two sets of scuba equipment. We had to wait for our turns when we went scuba diving. Each of us only had 30 minutes to explore the water, but that was enough to make me happy.”
As Park traveled to islands around the Korean peninsula, he and his team later reached a point at which they have visited every beach on the southern side of the country. After graduating college, he came to the U.S. in spring of 1993 to study English at Cal State L.A.
However, what attracted Park more than his studies was the beach scene on the West Coast. He immediately became a member of the Korean Scuba Divers Association and began exploring the Pacific Ocean. He later learned about the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) offering courses for instructors in Busan, South Korea. That’s when he took the 10-day course and obtained the instructor’s license. At the time, he was one of the few licensed scuba divers.
#The man who drove popularity of scuba diving in the Korean community
Park laughed when he was asked about his concerns about finding a job as a young man as he was obsessed with scuba diving.
“I realized during college that a job that requires me to stay in one place probably isn’t for me,” Park said. “That’s why I decided that I’m going to let scuba diving feed me even if the earnings wouldn’t be as big.”
After getting a job at KLG Sports Center, a store he found in L.A. Koreatown while he was a student in the city, Park became its scuba shop manager and moved stateside permanently in March 1994. He worked as both the store owner and scuba diving instructor and taught over 1,000 scuba divers in the process. After only a year, Park was able to acquire the store altogether and begin making over $10,000 a month.
“That’s when the economy in Koreatown was great,” Park said. “It was also a time when immigrants were thirsty for a hobby.”
In 1998, Park relocated the shop to Western Avenue. He also married a woman he met as a customer. Later, he expanded his business by opening his own café. Although the café closed only a year after its opening, Park moved to a small city of Santa Rosa close to San Francisco in 2004 to run a liquor store.
“The biggest reason for moving was to give my daughter a better quality education,” Park said. “But it was also because I wasn’t having enough time to scuba dive on my own since I was busy teaching others. I moved and was able to do it on my own as much as I wanted.”
His business took off as he lived in Northern California for 10 years. Park traveled overseas at least once or twice a year to explore the beautiful oceans outside of the U.S. He completed scuba diving trips in Galapagos, Philippines, Mexico, Fiji, and Hawaii—all locations considered as the ultimate dream for avid scuba divers. Nowadays, Park is known as the go-to scuba diving expert as he often writes columns for outdoor magazines in South Korea.
#Scuba diving is my destiny
After returning to L.A. in 2013, Park is now running coffee shops in Venice Beach and Downtown L.A. Since obtaining the course director license in 2002, Park has given birth to 20 Korean scuba divers. However, his biggest passion still lies in diving into the water himself.
“There were so many tidbits I’ve learned by going on scuba diving trips around the world that were simply too useful for me to just keep to myself,” Park said. “That’s why I began to form a team to travel with since about 10 years ago.
Park also goes out to a nearby beach at least twice a month with his scuba diving club members. He still has a bucket list filled with aspirations to visit other parts of the ocean he has yet to explore. On top of that list is filming a video of a hippo-looking dugong in the Red Sea from Egypt, followed by Cuba.
What could it be about the ocean that fascinates Park? Why is he so obsessed with exploring the ocean for decades? What makes him risk the high cost of scuba diving, traveling and also his own livelihood to jump into the dark water?
“You wouldn’t know the beauty of the ocean until you see it for yourself,” Park said. “Seeing a stingray that’s the size of a house swimming above your head and a whale shark right before your eyes are not things you could describe in words. It’s also fun to photograph those moments. Asking me why I jump into oceans is probably the same as asking mountain climbers who’ve climbed the Everest why they like mountains.”
Park added: “The 75 percent of the world is the ocean. Scuba divers have only been to 3 percent of the ocean that’s covering the earth, apparently. There are so many areas of the ocean human beings have never experienced. My plan is to retire in about five years and to visit the diving points I’ve never visited before.”
Conversation with Park naturally convinces one desperate to follow him on his trip one time. Who knows? Falling in love with a stingray may not be as crazy as it sounds. Maybe one could experience a revelation while swimming inside the water during sunset.”
By Joohyun Yi