Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
by Bob Halstead
IN THE ERA WHEN THE PACIFIC AND ASIA were being explored, invaded and colonized by Europeans, Papua New Guinea was largely ignored. Its formidable mountain ranges might have held the promise of fabled golden treasures, but the mountains soared above shores tangled with impenetrable jungle and were protected by fierce inhabitants and treacherous reefs, both capable of giving intruders lethal surprises.
What made Papua New Guinea so inaccessible for early foreign explorers is the very thing that attracts modern adventurers to this astonishing country. It is one of the world’s last remaining wilderness areas. However, it is not the desolation of the landscape or a harsh climate that has kept Papua New Guinea pristine, but its opulence and abundance that made it inaccessible. Nature went crazy in this area and produced such a lush display of mountains, volcanoes and rivers, swampy plains, rainforests and coral reefs, that Europeans had a hard time taming them and surviving. Even Papua New Guineans, whose ancestors are believed to have settled from Asia some 50,000 years ago, have mostly stayed isolated from each other, resulting in the evolution of over 800 languages and a kaleidoscope of colourful and distinct cultures.
For divers, a significant feature of the country’s reefs is that deep water comes very close to shore. Offshore winds produce calm seas and upwellings, as a result of which these reefs support a multitude of marine creatures. Delicate coral formations that could never grow on barrier reefs subjected to storm waves thrive in the clear, but sheltered waters. Sea fans and soft corals often reach enormous size, and large pelagic fish patrol the edge of the reef.
Shallow sandy or sea grass areas near beaches, some of which slope quickly to deep water, make for fascinating muck diving and the chance to discover the bizarre marine critters that live there.
Offshore from the mainland and big islands are countless small islands and reefs, many of which are uninhabited and uncharted. Although more exposed to the weather they are usually blessed with year-round visibility in excess of 40m (130ft). Some get enough nutrients to support soft corals and giant sea fans and sea whips. These occur deeper than their inshore relatives and are usually found between 20m (66ft) and 50m (165ft) down.
In addition to the magnificent reefs there are hundreds of wrecks scattered throughout the waters. These include ships, submarines and aircraft, many in excellent condition, some of which are perfect, untouched time capsules now transformed into coral wonderlands. There is still much scope for exploration. There are many aircraft and shipwrecks - and indeed reefs - in Papua New Guinea that have not yet been dived. Rarely does a year go by without some significant discovery being made.
CARL’S ULTIMATE, EASTERN FIELDS
Eastern Fields is a Coral Sea reef complex situated about 167km (104 miles) southwest of Port Moresby. The dive sites are only accessible by live-aboard boat. Like most true Coral Sea reefs it boasts excellent visibility, untouched coral growth and plenty of big fish and shark action.
Carl’s Ultimate 1 sits in the northern entrance to the Eastern Fields lagoon and experiences tidal currents. The outer tip has been scoured into cave-like passages filled with pink soft corals and the whole reef is adorned with sea fans and Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals. The fish life, including some impressive Giant Groupers (Epinephelus lanceolatus) and Potato Cod (E. tukula) is staggering.
The tidal currents should be assessed carefully and the boat moored at the down-current end of the reef. Do not anchor. Divers can then be taken by tender to the up-current end and dropped at the edge of the reef. The top of the reef is only 7m (23ft) deep and the reef, which is sausage-shaped, has over 40m (130ft) of water around it. Most of the dive should be planned for the end of the reef receiving the current, to be followed by a shallower drift or swim-back to the moored boat.
Because of the shape and isolation of the reef, navigation is easy. A gentle incoming current is preferable and times of maximum current should be avoided. The reef also boasts a multitude of interesting smaller critters including the recently described Whitebarred Wrasse (Pseudocheilinus ocellatus) known only from the oceanic Coral Sea. Lacy scorpionfish (Rhinopias aphanes), can be seen on the reef edge.
THE WRECK OF THE PAI 2, PORT MORESBY
Diving at Port Moresby is particularly good for exotic marine life, and the outer barrier reef is only a few kilometres offshore. There are many wrecks, recent and historical, lush reefs with drop-offs, reef passes and fascinating muck dives.
The most popular area is out of Bootless Bay, a 15-minute drive from the Airport and home to Loloata Island Resort. Horseshoe Reef on the outer barrier provides some excellent sheltered dive sites, including the wreck of the PAI 2 2, a scuttled fishing trawler. The wreck sits in 30m (100 ft) of water close to Horseshoe Reef, which is awash at low tide. Upright and still with its masts and wheelhouse intact, this wreck has improved over the years and now is the home for many tame fish including Mangrove Snappers (Lutjanus argentimaculatus) and Saddleback Coral Grouper (Plectropomus laevis). The masts are decorated with a colourful display of Dendronephthya Soft Tree Corals. Red-stripe Anthias, also known as One-stripe Anthias (Pseudanthias fasciatus), usually found in much deeper water, swarm on the wreck.
Carl’s Ultimate cave passages provide a popular swim-through for black trevally (Caranx lugubris) and divers alike.
A diver frames herself with colourful soft corals on the ladder and mast structure of the wreck of the PAI 2, a scuttled fishing trawler on Horseshoe Reef.
Boats can tie up to a permanent mooring established on the wreck and descend to the superstructure and masts at 15m (50ft). Currents tend to be slight and easily manageable. Visibility is variable, but often 25m (80ft) after passing through a murkier surface layer.
Bathed in a steady current, Banana Bommie is smothered in corals and feather stars, and swarms with fish.
The top turret gun of Blackjack, a World War II B17 bomber lying in deep water. It is still in near perfect condition. The cockpit can be viewed through open side windows.
3 BANANA BOMMIE, MILNE BAY
This sensational reef now has a mooring on top in 5m (16ft) of water. Boats should not anchor. In ideal conditions there is a slight and easily manageable current from the west. However, sometimes the current can get as fast as 4km/hour (two knots) and the dive should be avoided at these times. Divers should remember that the current running over the top of this reef is much stronger than the current experienced once a short distance down the reef slope.
The west side slopes steeply to about 27m (90ft) to a sandy bottom with scattered small coral heads. A forest of large garden eels live in the sand and, as the sand slopes towards the reef, several Red Lined or Peppermint Sea Cucumbers (Thelenota rubrolineata) will be seen. These are popular with photographers because of their brilliant colours.
The sides of the reef are thick with black corals, sea fans and soft corals, crinoids, anemones and zillions of fish. Coral Groupers or Red Coral Trout (Cephalopholis miniata) are very common and are not shy of divers. Barramundi Cod or Humpback Groupers (Cromileptes altivelis) are a prize find.
The eastern side can be dived on the rare occasions that the current is from the east. However, it is not as rich as the western side.
At the edge of the reef huge schools of Fairy Basslets (Pseudanthias spp.) feed on plankton borne by the current. It is a fabulous sight.
4 B17 BOMBER WRECK, BLACKJACK, MILNE BAY
The area is exposed to strong southeast and northwest winds and often has a current over the site from the southeast. It should not be attempted except in calm conditions.
The best plan is for a direct ascent to the aircraft, a single slow pass over the wings, nose and cockpit areas finishing at the tail. The starboard tailplane is bent upwards and points to the exit for the dive, which is a reef slope at about 45° leading to a vertical wall ideal for making a slow, safe ascent. The wall rises to 3m (10ft) of water. This is a deep dive requiring decompression stops, often with current present, and should not be attempted by inexperienced divers. It may be dived at 40m (130ft), but the sandy bottom is at 48m (158ft). Visibility in good conditions can reach 40m (130ft). The wreck is exceptionally intact and has guns and other artefacts for the diver to see. Divers should resist the temptation to penetrate the fuselage, which has many loose wires hanging around. The cockpit can be viewed and photographed through the open side windows. A machine gun at the tail of the aircraft still swivels in its mount. A Giant Grouper is occasionally seen. A film describing the aircraft’s war history and its eventual discovery, Black Jack’s Last Mission, was produced in 1988. There are excellent reef dives near the wreck, particularly at the southeast entrance to the channel in which it lies; and the wall by the wreck can be dived by those not interested in deep wreck diving.
First coined by Bob Halstead in Papua New Guinea, muck diving is usually done over a silty or sandy bottom, but it can also be over coral rubble. Concentrated observation will locate small and often colourful or weird creatures camouflaged against their environment. Having realized the possibilities, divers soon found creatures they had previously missed in Indonesia’s Lembeh Strait, Borneo’s Mabul, Kapalai and Lankayan and in the Philippines’ Anilao, Boracay, Puerto Galera and Malapascua. Often it was a case of the visibility being so good that no one had bothered to look for such small creatures.
Most divers will need local guides to help locate these creatures. Many are so small that it is worth carrying a magnifying glass: tiny commensal shrimps and crabs on larger animals and gobies and pygmy sea horses on gorgonias.
5 OBSERVATION POINT, MILNE BAY
This is one of the most famous of Milne Bay’s muck dives. Boats can anchor on the sandy slope in the passage between the point at the northwestern tip of Normanby Island and the small island, with the stern tied to a tree on the sandy beach. Villagers are friendly and have built rest houses for visiting divers. The site is sheltered in all weather and particularly good when the southeaster blows. There is sometimes a slight current over the site. Visibility depends on the weather, but is usually between 8m (25ft) and 30m (100ft).
A muck dive, Observation Point, reveals its treasures only after careful scrutiny. This new species of sand darter (Trichonotus halstead) is named after the author and his wife.
Stalactites have formed over the skulls in this Milne Bay cave. They were probably taken as war trophies in ancient wars.
This is not a glamorous site, but it offers opportunities for finding unusual marine life. A coral reef has sea grass and mangroves in the shallows. This borders a steep, sandy slope littered with crinoids, dead leaves and other debris. Down the slope, in the middle of the passage at about 40m (130ft), are sea pens and small soft corals. The area supports an array of creatures not found on coral reefs, including ghost pipefish; sand darters (divers) and razorfish (Iniistius sp.); shrimpfish (Aeoliscus strigatus); Dwarf or Shortfin Lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus); octopuses; cuttlefish; Inimicus and other scorpionfish; helmet shells; frogfish; fire urchins and juvenile batfish. A new species of sand darter, Trichonotus halstead, named after the author and his wife, was discovered here.
The creatures vary, but there are always superb macrophoto opportunities for unusual creatures. Care should be taken not to stir up the bottom. A Saltwater or Estuarine Crocodile, Crocodilus porosus, was seen here and photographed underwater. The BBC programme Blue Planet filmed a mating sequence of the Flamboyant Cuttlefish here.
Lama Shoal has extraordinary fish life. However, it is carpeted with large areas of stinging Coral-limorpharians (Discosoma sp.), which should never be touched.
6 KIMBE ISLAND BOMMIE KIMBE BAY
Kimbe Island is in the middle of Kimbe Bay about an hour’s boat ride from Walindi Resort. The bommie is close to the island and marked with a mooring. Boats should not attempt to anchor, especially as the top of the bommie is 27m (90 ft) deep. The site is weather-dependent and difficult to dive in strong southeast trade winds or northwest swells.
Visibility is, however, usually excellent and often reaches 50m (165ft). The dive is best when there is a slight current (less than one knot) running, when all the fish come to feed. The reef abounds with life and is richly decorated with stony and soft corals and gorgonias. There are some ridges extending from the pinnacle into water too deep to dive. This is one of the best sites in the area to see schools of big fish, depending on the current. On a still day you will wonder what the fuss is about, although the scenery is always great.
Whales and dolphins are often seen in the area and divers have reported, and filmed, awesome experiences, particularly with Orcas.
7 LAMA SHOAL NEW BRITAIN
Lama Shoal, almost two kilometres (one nautical mile) east of Garove Island in the Bali Witu Islands, is exceptional for fish action. After descending to the top of the reef, where there is a mooring in about 8m (25ft), divers should make their way against the current to the side receiving the current to see schools of barracuda and Bigeye Trevallies. Dogtooth Tuna patrol the drop-off among schools of other reef fish. Sharks are occasionally seen. Princess Anthias, (Pseudanthias smithvanizi) swarm over the reef and lionfish are common.
Visibility is usually excellent - at least 40m (130ft). On the sloping, descending to well below 50m (165ft), are many large bushes of black coral, sea whips and barrel sponges. An unusual feature of this reef is that the top and upper slope is carpeted with a small brown anemone-like creature. This is a giant colony of Corallimorpharians, which are dangerous to divers. These animals capture prey not merely by stinging them, but by enclosing them in their mantle, which shapes itself into a sphere with a small opening at the top. If a shrimp or fish wanders into the opening it immediately closes and traps the animal. The Corallimorpharian is dangerous to divers because it has a potent defensive sting which can penetrate a Lycra suit. If you disturb the animal it produces a mass of white acontia, which contains stinging cells. The stings can produce secondary symptoms such as neuritis. Do not touch these creatures.
The site is exposed to strong southeast winds, but otherwise quite sheltered and a worthwhile dive, particularly in the evening when the fish life is magic.
8 CHAPMAN’S REEF, NEW HANOVER
Chapman’s Reef is located just south of Ao Island near Cape Matanalem, New Hanover. It features an incredible drop-off with huge school of barracuda, and masses of pelagic fish. There is often a strong current, usually from the southeast, but this is manageable for experienced divers. However the reef does experience swells and is partly exposed, making mooring impossible in windy conditions. Visibility is usually excellent and can reach 50m (165ft). The reef top is at 10m (33ft), but the drop-off reaches well over 50m (165ft).
A ridge reef runs parallel to shore, sloping deeply at the sides and with a massive dropoff at its eastern end. The trick is to get over the drop-off when there is a current flowing over it. Once over the edge of the reef the diver is largely sheltered from the effects of the current and can just pick a depth and watch the world go by. Sharks and giant Queensland Groupers cruise through huge schools of fish. Pelagics, including big Dogtooth Tuna, hunt in the evenings. The reef is carpeted by soft corals and there are sea fans down the drop. If the boat is close to the edge the best technique is to swim quickly to the northern side of the ridge where a back eddy will help the diver to the drop-off. Getting over the edge of the drop is the hardest part.
Sometimes the dive is made from an inflatable that drops divers up-current of the edge. The strength of the current is largely unpredictable, but it appears to be stronger on the neap tides, rather than on the springs as one would expect. There is usually a period during the day when the current slackens and then it is possible to dive with the school of barracuda on top of the ridge, which will circle around a diver. A deep crack, filled with fish, runs across the ridge at the eastern end.
9 VALERIE’S REEF KAVIENG
Valerie’s Reef has a resident population of Silvertip Sharks (Carcharhinus albimarginatus). The initial dives were made from the dive boat Telita with Valerie Taylor and the reef is named for her. Boats can moor on top of a sloping stony coral reef in 12m (40ft) of water. As soon as the boat is moored sharks can be seen swimming below. Indeed, the sharks will come to the boat if anchored anywhere within a radius of 9km (6 miles) of the reef.
Best conditions are when a slight current is running from the southeast and light winds. Ocean swells may be present. Visibility is excellent unless there has been recent heavy rain. The reef slopes away to over 40m (130ft).
Shark feeds have previously been held at this site, but regular feeding is no longer needed to attract sharks. No Grey Reef Sharks have ever been seen. However, a Great Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) did come to the bait once, at which time the Silvertips immediately disappeared. The number of sharks has declined in recent years because of illegal fishing. However, a small population of large sharks remains at the site. These sharks do not act aggressively if there is no bait in the water. This is a rare and valuable dive site that enables divers to get within touching distance of large sharks in clear, shallow water. The sharks remain for a long time and it is possible to return to the boat directly above for more film and air and continue the dive. Snorkelling is not advised.
A diver is encircled by a school of Chevron (Blackfin) Barracuda (Sphyraena qenie) during a period of slack tide on top of the ridge at Chapman’s Reef.
Heron Island on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef offers one of the best examples of barrier reef ecology. The resort is a great platform for divers, snorkellers and family vacations.
Lizard Island serves as base for OceanNEnvironment Australia, from which they conduct marine research.