Papua New Guinea – Diving the Paradise
Mount Wilhelm, 4509 m, is the highest mountain in the entire Oceania region, and is located in Papua New Guinea (PNG). PNG is situated just under the equator and in the East part of the Indonesian island (Irian Jaya). New Guinea is the second largest island in the world.
The country attracts divers from all over the world, not only because of the large number of aquatic species, but also because of the big number of wrecks, especially Japanese ships from World War II. The relatively small quantity of divers that are getting there and the awareness of the locals allow to protect the reefs wealth. A lot of them still remained undiscovered.
One morning, Pilo from the Yam Magazine, called Dany Weinberg and myself and told that he had two places on a 10-day dive live-aboard in Papua New Guinea. We were actually dreaming of that destination for a long time already without knowing when we could get there. It took us a short time to check with our respective managers (our wives), then with work to give the final OK to Pilo.
We took care of our tickets, which was a not an easy task, but thanks to Hedva from the travel agency to have had the patience and the skills to find the best possible deal together with the best possible flight connections. We also needed a visa. Mary-Clare from the PNG consulate took care of this for us really quickly.
Regarding the photo equipment, we had to make sure we had backups as well as backup for the pictures. That was quite a job. We had two notebooks, two external hard drives, two x-drives, and one DVD burner with a lot of media…
But an even bigger problem still had to be solved: how would we actually transport all the photo and computer equipment? Sending the diving equipment along with our luggage was not a problem. Even if it would get lost, we could still organize diving equipment on site. We had to take with us the photo and computer equipment, in our handbags and we had quite a lot of heavy stuff. We each had one large photo bag, one computer bag and one photo vest to store the equipment. Altogether, we had about 40kgs worth of “handbags” each. We had to discretely sneak into each flight with all that overweight.
After a very long trip and four flights, with stops in Istanbul, Singapore and Port Moresby (where we had a couple of hours free to go to the Boroko Market), we finally arrived to Hoskins in the island of New Britain (North-East of the mainland). We still had a one-hour trip to do in the middle of the green palm plantations to get to the Walindi Plantation Resort, from which we would get on the ship for ten days.
Walindi means in the local language “underwater meeting site ” and belongs to Max Benjamin. Max arrived from Australia in 1966. He purchased the place to set up a plantation and to exploit it. He started diving in 1975 and actually only started paying true attention to the variety of species found in PNG after the jeep diving trip he made all over Sinai. He was stunned by the beauty of the Red Sea and the quantity of the different species. However, upon his return, he was surprised to discover that there were twice as many species of fishes and corals in PNG than in the Red Sea!
With a smile on his face, Max tells us about how they had counted over 100 different species of corals between two very close local reefs, which is more species than you can find in the entire Caribbean Sea. His face brightens even more when telling us that only in the Western part of Kimbe Bay (where Walindi is situated), there are more than 400 species of corals. New species are still being found regularly. Researchers working at depths of 60 to 150 meters came across approximately seven new species each hour during the period they were working.
Many scientists visit the site. They found out that the reefs cycle very quick in PNG. Reefs can die and then recycle after a very short time only. A species of fish living up to 15 years in the Great Barrier of Coral, lives only a couple of years in PNG as a result of the faster cycle.
Diving boats leave Walindi on a daily basis towards local diving spots. The area has been recognized as the best place in the world for diving from daily boats. The reefs in Kimbe Bay are magnificent and on a good day, you can observe up to six different types of mammals swimming either on top of you or simply underwater. You can see orcas, dolphins, different types of whales and even dugongs, which are harder to spot because they tend to be very shy.
Many famous underwater photographers visit the site. Many prizes have been won with underwater pictures taken at Walindi. Many magazines advertised displayed pictures of the place on their cover page.
In 1992, Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals were awarded in the well-known International Underwater Antibes Photo Competition for pictures taken around Walindi.
Walindi is also well-known for bird watching. Hadoram Shirihai, an Israeli bird photographer has even found there two years ago a very rare seabird. He was lucky enough to be the first photographer to shoot pictures in the wild of the Heinroth’s Shearwater.
Before going up on the live-aboard, we had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Walindi and to explore the rich surrounding nature, the palm plantations, local markets and villages.
We could also get into the hot river warmed up by the local volcano.
The last day, we attended a church event and listened to the local gospel in the Pidgin language. That was an unforgettable experience.
We hit the road and reached the Northeastern reefs (The Father’s reefs), about ten hours later. Now, we were ready to begin our 5 dives per day trip. The diving times were as follows: the first one was at 06:30 a.m., before breakfast, the second one at 9:00 a.m., the third one at 11:30 before the lunch, the fourth one at 15:30 and the night dive at 18:30, just before dinner.
Jock was our captain on the splendid Star Dancer; he looked like a typical sailor. He had thousands of interesting and funny stories to tell and he was even funnier after some glasses of whiskey.
The staff rang the bell before each dive, except for the morning dive, so that those who wanted to sleep later wouldn’t be disturbed. We didn’t want to miss any of the dives, but one morning we didn’t wake up; at 06:30 we heard a noise which woke us up and at 06:37 we were already in the water.
The staff was in charge of bringing our heavy cameras to the diving deck. At the end of each dive, we were pampered with hot towels and even sometimes a shoulder massage from Elsie, as well as snacks or delicious meals.
Most of the diving sites are mainly named after women. Max and his friends who are the ones discovering the sites are also the ones giving them names.
The two first dives we did on the first day at Jackie’s Knob were very colorful. We stumbled upon some giant anemones, jacks, turtles, and many batfishes. Later, in Shaggy’s, we saw the first samples of sharks (grey reefs). At the end of the dive, Elsie, our charming diving guide, made us a rope walking demonstration in the water, under the boat. In the afternoon and at night, we dived in Midway; were we saw there many closed colorful anemones.
The second day, we began at Alice’s reef. It was discovered two years ago. The dive was quite hard since we had a lot of heavy currents. During that dive, we bumped into a couple of grey reefs and white tip sharks, but the real shark action dives came only during the two next dives, at Kilibob’s. Kilibob’s is THE shark dive. There were many grey reef sharks swimming very close to us and many white tips as well. We had also the opportunity to see one silver tip shark, which is quite rare in that region.
In the back of the reef was a huge group of Jacks. For those who know the famous Blue Corner in Palau, Kilibob’s is at least as good as far as shark action is concerned, if not more and you can look right at the face of the shark, not only its profile.
During the next dive, at Norman’s Reef, we got all kinds of macro critters, tiny shrimps, worms, nudibranchs, and more and from the Night dive at Jackie’s Knob we came back with many kinds of nudibranchs, tiny crabs and we also saw a cuttle-fish.
The inhabitants of the islands next to which we were stopping were sometimes approaching the Star Dancer by canoe to pay us a kind visit.
The third day began at the “Arch”, were we saw pygmy seahorses for the first time. The size of that creature is just about 3 to 5mm long and can be found in very few places of the world. It resides on an alcyonar coral, to which it is attached with by its tail. It is not easy to photograph, not only because it is tiny, but also because it has the same color as the coral on which it resides, well camouflaged. Besides, the sea is not really quiet in that area and it is not easy to remain steady.
We also bumped into the rare freckled-face blenny teasing us out of its hole.
During the next two dives we did at North Shaggy, we could observe a lot of crinoids but also brittle stars, soft coral crabs, or tiny crinoid shrimps. Then, there was “Jack’s Jurracio”, something completely new to us; this was a “muck dive”, meaning that you are looking for critters into the sand, the stones, and into all the dirt on the ground. It is really amazing how many things you can find in a place that looks so poor! The locals used to fish with dynamite in that area, which explains the large quantity of broken corals. Today, they are no longer fishing that way.
On the fourth day, we went to Jayne’s Gully, where we saw quite a lot of huge tubular sponges (barrel sponges). We could also meet Elsie’s pet. It was a green turtle that really seemed to love her. It was incredible, each time Elsie was calling the turtle with her finger; it was swimming fast to her and turned around in a circle.
We had some more dives, encountering some of the same species that have already been described. The dives were quite different from one another, but all of them were fascinating and had something special. A lot of life and many different species each dive.
On the fifth day, we went to Belinda’s Reef where we had some more shark dives, comparable to the ones we previously had at Kilibob’s. There, we met George, a giant barracuda whose size was approximately 1.70m. It was cruising under the Star Dancer.
We couldn’t get enough sharks watching, so we went back to Kilibob’s as a farewell dive to the Northeastern Father’s Reefs. The same evening, we left for a 12-hour navigation to the Northwestern part of New Britain, the Witu Islands.
In the morning of the sixth day we went to dive in the famous Krakafat. “Crack a fat” means in Australian/Neo-Zealand language “To get an erection when watching the scenery”. They use that expression when they hang out in the bars of the red light district. Fortunately for our wives, no mermaids were found underwater, only some large bands of barracudas, jacks and splendid coral reefs.
For the first time, we saw there the “corallimorpharia” which kills the corals. It is somewhere between an anemone and a coral. It is a coral with no skeleton, which makes it comparable to an anemone. If you touch it, it releases a white substance that burns the skin and gets through the wetsuit as well. They are all over local reefs and scientists are searching for solutions to get rid of them.
Later on, still at the Witu’s, we made some more “muck diving” and once again, we could not help being amazed by the large quantity of species we saw in a place that looked so poor and so sandy. This time we could admire the rare mantis shrimp, the blue ribbon eel, signal gobies… At the end of the afternoon’s muck dive we noticed children from the island jumping out of their canoe into the water and skin diving happily. That was a great experience.
The seventh day was a full macro day at Barneys then at Dickie’s Knob, where we could appreciate many tiny critters quite different than the ones we had already seen. We saw the elegant squat lobster, the longnose hawkfish, the porcelain crab and the familiar soft coral crab.
We finished that day in Wire Bay, a world-class muck diving site situated close to Dickie’s house. Dickie has a plantation on the island and he is well-known all around PNG because of his Harley Davidson of which he is so proud. He can probably ride all around the island in less than one hour.
The common seahorse, the famous goby and shrimp duet, the mimic octopus, hermit crab that found really odd houses, ghost pipe fishes looking like grass were only a few of the species that we saw in that area. There were many more other species, some of which still remain unidentified.
The last one and half diving days, we decided to get back to Kimbe bay to dive on sites usually visited by Walindi’s dailies.
In the morning of the seventh day, we hoped to see some hammerhead sharks that are known to swim around there, but they didn’t come to the meeting. Nevermind, the reef was wonderful.
Later, at South Emma, we had a new pigmy seahorse dive. This time we had to get to 38 meters to see them. Close to the coral on which resides the Denise Pygmy Seahorse, there is a splendid coral tunnel that we couldn’t photograph because we were with our macro sets. We could have made some amazing shots if we had a wide-angle lens with us.
When we arrived at the next site, Rest Orf, a splendid green tiny island, we saw a real microclimate. In the distance, there was a lonely cloud from which it was raining. It reminded us of the cartoons we saw when we were little boys. Despite the bad visibility underwater, we could still see giant alcyonar corals, mandarin fishes, crocodile fishes and some more species of tiny crabs.
On our last day, we had only two morning dives. At Vanessa’s reef was populated with splendid giant see fans and a lot of elephant ear sponges as well.
The last dive at Kristy Jones, we saw for the first time razor fishes (shrimpfish) swimming with their head down and the tail up. It was really hard to get out of that dive since we knew it would be the last one for us in that paradise.
Back to Walindi, after 41 dives in eight and a half days, we had a hard time hearing each other. Our ears didn’t forgive us all those dives. During three days we were in excruciating pain. The adrenaline we had during the trip made us forget this pain. However, we tried to do the most of the time left to stay and visit. If you dive with a camera, don’t be negligent with your ears and equalize the pressure often.
Human remains have been found in New Guinea, dated ca. 60,000 years old. These ancient inhabitants probably originated from South East Asia, established a simple civilization based on agriculture. Little was known about the island until the 19th century, although European explorers discovered the island in the 16th century. The country was named in the 19th century: the word “Papua” is derived from a Malay word describing the frizzy Melanesian hair, and “New Guinea” was the name given by a Spanish explorer because of the population’s resemblance to that of Guinea in Africa. The northern half of the country came into German hands in the late 19th century as German New Guinea. In World War I, it was occupied by Australia, who also administered the southern part as Papua (formerly British New Guinea). The two territories were combined into the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, later simply, Papua New Guinea. Independence was achieved in 1975. The actual date is 16th of September 1975. Since 1988, a secessionist revolt claiming 20,000 lives raged on the island of Bougainville, before being resolved in 1997.
Some facts to take into consideration before traveling to PNG:
Malaria pills must be taken, especially if you intend to visit the forests and the highlands. The best is to try the pills before you travel since some kinds may make you sick. Some kinds may also cause decompression accidents. The best way to avoid malaria is by not being stung by mosquitoes. Be sure to have a good mosquito repellant. It could help to sleep with long sleeves shirt and pants as well.
Take disinfectant and antibiotic cream in case you get wounded. Every wound gets infected rapidly and it’s important to take care of them really fast.
After such an intensive diving trip, your ears might suffer, be sure to have good ear drops with you. It might also be advisable to have Paracetamol or Aspirine.
Be sure to have some talc powder or some good cream in case of scratches.
Travel You can get to Port Moresby from Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore or Sidney. Interior flights are available to get to New Britain, Milne Bay, Rabaul, Kavieng or any other part of PNG that you intend to visit.
There are around 860 different languages all around PNG 19 provinces. Although the most popular language is the Pidgin, most of the people speak English as well.
The local money is the Kina. Kina is also a “shell”. The Kina is a large coin with a hole in the middle. The change rate can be checked on the following sites:
Tropical climate may be quite different from one place to another you are but generally quite wet. Water temperature can fluctuate between 26 and 30 degrees. You can dive all the year long in PNG. January, February and March are wet in Kimbe Bay, the Northern part of New Britain. That is the reason why during these months, the Star Dancer is cruising in the South Coast of New Britain from Rabaul to Lindenhaven and the Febrina cruises in Milne Bay around Alotau.