The ABC of PNG
By Wolfgang E. Grulke
By the time we reached Port Moresby (the capital of Papua New Guinea - or PNG), we already had 16 hours of flying time behind us, two flights and another few hours lay ahead, before we could look forward to a few hours in a bus! To South Africans diving in PNG is not 'just around the corner'!
However, my senses tingled the moment I arrived in Papua New Guinea; the vivid colours and startling
faces coupled with that marvellous smell of warm earth, sunshine and tropical plants. On our flight from Port Moresby to Hoskins in West New Britain we crossed mountain ranges that top 4000 metres. Three quarters of PNG is covered by tropical rainforests (PNG is said to have more remaining natural jungle than all of Africa!) and the remainder is made up of delta plains, flat grassland and mangrove swamps. The deeper valleys remained isolated until early this century. Stories of cannibalism are legend. The land you fly over is occupied by people who have 700 different languages and cultures that are just as diverse.
We began to wonder how anyone communicates at all! In PNG, as in much of the western Pacific, communication happens by means of 'Pidgin English' - a universal tongue spoken by millions. The signs at the airport gave us a clue what Pidgin English is all about! ‘Beware of the bus/Lookut long ka’ the signs intoned, somewhat humorously! Even the name of Papua New Guinea national airline ‘Air Niugini’ should have given the game away! Beyond these simple examples, Pidgin English gets more and more compelling!
Help me with my baggage
I do not feel well
You are unattractive and past your prime
Screw belong fut
Disfella belong me
Helapim carryim all something belong me
Me feelim no-good
You dry biskit!
We came across an island where three tribes lived within minutes of each other, with absolutely zero communication through the years - save the occasional raid to steal or kill. It is rumpoured that the plumed, shell-adorned villagers also sometimes ate each other. But talk, never! Sometimes, even in Pidgin, words are simply not appropriate!
Papua New Guinea is a diverse and naïve land, remarkably untamed and patently rough from a tourism point of view. It is raw! Sophisticated resorts are few and far between - real oases of relative comfort in a disturbingly unpredictable natural environment. In 1994, the once-beautiful New Britain town of Rabaul was destroyed by the Tuvurvur volcanic eruption. In late 1998, just one week after we left the area, a tidal wave killed thousands a few hundred kilometres from where we had sailed.
It is exactly this wild diversity that has, for so long, excited a raft of anthropologists and travellers. To experience Papua New Guinea is totally special. From the spectacularly beautiful highlands to the lush and expansive coastline and stunning coral reef environments is an experience not to be missed.
For diving a live-aboard dive boat is the best option in a country with so little infrastructure. Our diving base for this expedition was the TSMV "FeBrina" - a 72 foot luxury live-aboard dive vessel - based at the Walindi Plantation Resort, situated on a privately owned oil palm plantation on the north coast of New Britain and the western shore of Kimbe Bay, part of the Bismarck Sea. The Bay is fringed by volcanic mountains, some still active.
Situated to the north east of Australia and between Asia and the Pacific, Papua New Guinea occupies a unique geographic position.
There are close to 9000 species of plants in PNG, most of them found in lowland rainforests. Around 250 species of mammals live in the islands, mostly bats and rats, but also including marsupials such as the tree kangaroo. There are 700 species of birds, including giant cassowaries, cockatoos – and more parrot, pigeon and kingfisher species than anywhere else in the world
Underwater, Kimbe Bay supports an incredibly diverse marine habitat. 70% of all coral species in the Indo-Pacific region are found in these waters. Few other dive areas in the world can boast such diversity. Recent scientific surveys have recorded over 320 species of corals and over 850 species of reef fish, all within this area.
We dived the waters of Kimbe Bay, Lolobau Island and Bali Witu Islands. Within Kimbe Bay alone you will find more than 200 reefs and dive sites. These pristine reefs are where many of the world's award-winning underwater photographs have been taken. Dive sites visited include pinnacles rising from the sea bed 1000 metres below and stopping just below the surface, to vertical walls draped with corals and sponges, from delicate floral garden-like reefs to small coral heads scattered over white sand. We explored volcanic peaks and caves and massive reef drop-offs.
On our first day, less than an hour out of Walindi aboard "FeBrina", we dived Kirsty Jayne's Reef, probably one of the most beautiful reefs I have ever dived. Forests of sea whips and enormous sea fans are characteristic of the reef at about 20 m. Amongst the sea whips, schools of razor fish believe themselves to be invisible and make spectacular, if incredibly reflective, photo subjects! Although these whips and fans thrive in areas where there are strong currents you can time your dives to coincide with the tides in such a way that you can have the calmest of dives. Around every corner there loom barrel sponges, some more than 2 m tall!
One after the other, the reefs of Milne Bay continued to surprise. Each one added a new dimension to our experience of underwater PNG. Schooling jacks creating a most spectacular display; huge schools of barracuda; several species of inquisitive reef sharks; gigantic elephant ear sponges; spectacular nudibranchs; black/yellow and yellow/blue ribbon morays; schools of bright purple darting anthias (goldies). On one deep reef on a huge sea fan at beyond 40 m, we filmed a tiny knobbly red sea horse, a species that has only ever been photographed in PNG waters.
The area around Lolobau Island yielded many shark encounters, schools of pyramid butterflyfish and one wonderful dive with a school of humphead parrotfish (they appeared to be almost 2m long but were probably a bit smaller than that) as we observed them chomping loudly at the hard corals - their weight seemingly shaking the whole reef as they bit aggressively at the reef infrastructure.
After a rough overnight journey we reached Garove Island, an extinct volcano whose crater is now a huge lagoon, where we took shelter from the weather. Entry into the crater is through a narrow channel that becomes quite rough as the tides change, even on calm days. The rim of the crater is covered in Jurassic Park style jungle - spectacular beyond belief. The marine creatures in the lagoon have their own fascination. Jellyfish and brilliant anemones; the unusual twin-spot goby and the ringed pipefish; and the only crown-of-thorns starfish we saw on the entire expedition. Here too, we encountered the greatest diversity of nudibranchs that I have ever seen and many ribbon eels, so scarce elsewhere. While nudibranchs are some of the least mobile of marine creatures, the ribbon remains one of the most scatty and most difficult to photograph. I spend a full dive with one critter before he eventually emerged sufficiently for me to photograph the brilliant blue and yellow textures on the side of his body.
On the reefs around Garove island its volcanic origin is clearly evident - there are large areas where the sand is absolutely pitch-black - and it makes an unusual and fascinating background for some of the more cryptic creatures such as scorpionfish. Also on these reefs, on one dive, we recorded five species of anemonefish (clownfish) - unprecedented in my diving career.
On Lama Shoals, just 2 km east of Garove, diving in the remains of the bad weather we had been trying to avoid, we found a large sea mount absolutely carpeted with the notorious brown corallimorpharians! These cousins of the prolific corals, have one of the most powerful poisons in the coral kingdom. Nothing to look at but disastrous to touch. In a rampant surge we tried our damdest not to become another on their list of victims. On top of the sea mount, we had amazing close-up experiences with a 2m great barracuda being cleaned by an unperturbed cleaner wrasse. Lama Shoals is also the home of the rare purple leaf scorpionfish, one of the very few places in the world where this species is found. We managed only a very brief time with one, right on top of the reef, as the surge buffeted us from side to side.
Our favourite dive site of all was undoubtedly Restorf Island in Milne Bay, to which we returned several times. The waters around this tiny jungle-clad islet appear to harbour the entire microcosm of the majestic marine life of Milne Bay. There is something here for every diver, novice or vastly experienced. Right at the mooring buoy, in about 4 m of water, is a magnificent anemone with a family of spine-cheeked anemonefish. The underwater scenery all around the island is spectacular - ranging from garden eels on the sandy flats to profuse coral growth on the walls at 10 m and deeper. Here we saw the unusual Caledonian Stinger, an eerie fish reminiscent of a scorpionfish or stonefish, that lies absolutely motionless in the sand at night amongst coral rubble. It is difficult to spot due to its cryptic coloration and the extremely poisonous 'stingers' on its back that add to the impression that it is just a part of the night time environment. It is indigenous to this area and when it is disturbed, appears to 'walk' away somewhat nonchalantly on its stick-like 'legs' - actually highly evolved fins! Despite its cryptic appearance, it shows a display of brilliant colours whenever its large pectoral fins are extended - a truly delicious surprise from an otherwise extremely bland and ominous creature!
One can list other prolific critters that seemed to be with us on every dive - attendant batfish, schools of a variety of parrotfish, hawkfish, brightly coloured feather starfish many with commensal shrimps, soft corals covered with tiny spider crabs - the problem is it just becomes too much to absorb! And that, is really the feeling that the underwater environment of Milne Bay leaves you with - overwhelmed, enriched and wanting to go back. Unquestionably some of the best diving in the world - even if you have to go almost to the ends of the earth to get it!
Today, the country still attracts some bad press, and although much of it is scare-mongering, it is wise to remember that PNG is subject to the same problems - urban unemployment, a rising crime rate and environmental exploitation - facing many emerging nations. Remember also that the tourist infrastructure of PNG is only in its infancy and that accommodation can be expensive, transportation limited and the food uninspiring. So my tip is - use only the very best operators!
At the end of two weeks of penetration diving (sometimes 6 dives a day), long flights and endless mind-numbing waits, I felt decidedly “unattractive and past my prime” on arriving home, definitely the wet equivalent of that wonderful pidgin phrase “You dry biskit”! My mind though was sparkling – it still is!
Walindi Plantation Resort and FeBrina can be contacted directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via your specialist dive travel agent.
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