Lighting the way past their remote island
“No theme park in Korea [has what we have],” says Lee Song-gyun, the chief of nautical mark management. “About 2,000 tourists visit the island every day in mid-summer. That’s when we sweat.”
Located just 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) off the East coast of Jeju Island, Udo, or “bull island” (it’s shaped like a bull) is home to 1,719 residents. Atop a small grass-covered volcanic cone, two old lighthouses grandly overlook everything. One is 100 years old, and the other, which is about 10 meters away, was erected in December 2003.
Along with Mr. Lee, 57, the lighthouses are taken care of by Goh Yeong-jin, 59, and Yang Jeong-sik, 33. They work three eight-hour shifts a day.
“Since we lit up the new one, the old lighthouse has only been used as a tourist site,” said Mr. Lee.
The old six-meter lighthouse had nothing but a light to guide ships, but the new 16-meter one is equipped with more high-tech stuff. It is three times brighter than the old lighthouse and has an illumination sensor system that analyzes the state of the 25 unmanned lighthouses that are spread across 40 kilometers (25 miles) of coast.
The lighthouse keepers have more to do than one might imagine: When fog rolls in, they have to broadcast audio signals, which work similar to radar. They also keep the Korea Meteorological Administration informed about the local environment, such as cloud formations and wave heights, and measure the sea’s temperature and salinity.
Mr. Lee and Mr. Goh have done the job for nearly 30 years. The two said they gave up living with their families long ago to move from island to island. But Mr. Yang, the youngest, moved here with his wife and children.
Mr. Lee started his career as lighthouse keeper on Udo in 1979. After working for other islands, he came back to Udo in December.
Mr. Goh started the job in 1984 when he was 37 years old. Like Mr. Lee, Udo was Mr. Goh’s first workplace as a lighthouse keeper. He came back here two years ago for the fourth time. He says he’ll retire in June ― he suffers from insomnia, as he sometimes works at night and cannot sleep in the brightness of day.
But Mr. Yang, who started working at lighthouses in 1995 and has been here for three years (he previously worked on Mara and Chuja islands), is more enthusiastic about the job. “It’s doable. These days we have tap water,” he said with a smile. “Years ago, we had to drink rain water.”
Mr. Yang, who graduated from a technical high school, often fixes electronic appliances for island residents.
After forming a lighthouse park, which includes models of famous lighthouses around the world, the three men got busier, especially during the summer.
Life isn’t easy for lighthouse-keepers, but these three don’t seem to mind. They are, after all, a light in the darkness.
Udo lighthouse celebrates 100 years
The first lighthouse on Udo Island was established in February 1906 to guide Japanese battleships. For a month, the “lighthouse” was just a wooden hut with a gas lamp, until a 6-meter lighthouse was built. There was no lighthouse keeper at that time.
It was the fourth lighthouse built in Korea; the first one was established on Palmi Island near Incheon in 1903. After being damaged several times by typhoons, the Udo lighthouse was rebuilt in its current form in 1910.
Jeju Regional Maritime Affairs & Fisheries Office is planning to hold a walk around the island on March 26 to celebrate its centennial.
by Yang Seong-cheol
More in Features
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it
The traveling grandma who's 'alive and kicking it'