"" Writer's Wanderings: Diving Papua New Guinea

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Diving Papua New Guinea

  [This is an essay from our first trip to PNG in 2003 to dive. We returned again in 2004 and did see the mantas on the second trip. Since then we heard that some of the liveaboard boats and particularly the one we enjoyed have pulled out of PNG because of the increased danger of travel there. While some would say it's not a problem, we preferred not to take the chance.]


            “Shout our name from the mountains to seas, Papua New Guinea.” The strains of their national anthem still play in my mind. I expected a great dive adventure. I didn’t expect to fall in love.
            Perhaps it was waking anchored in calm inlets to hazy purplish sunrises with the distant call of exotic birds, or looking out at the lush green islands of Milne Bay that contrasted sharply against the clear blue skies and deep azure waters that drew me in. Without a doubt it was meeting the wonderful people of the villages that dot the islands so far away from the usual conveniences we take for granted.
            Silently the dugout canoes sliced through the water from each village as we neared. Men, women, and children in canoes congregated at the sides and back of the live-aboard with fresh fruits and vegetables to trade for staples like rice and sugar. Some displayed crafts of wood and shells to sell or trade for T-shirts. Some fished. But all watched as we came and went in our dive gear. We were the entertainment for the day.
            The paradise above was magnified in the treasures below. Abundant colorful marine life in all shapes and sizes played over a patchwork quilt of colored corals. An abundance of lionfish, countless varieties of nudibranchs, endless fields of anemones each with their guardian clownfish, and the unusual—the hairy ghost pipefish All of it kept us going back for more. On this 10 day trip, we were limited only by our ability, stamina, and common sense.
            Diving the wreck of the WWII bomber Blackjack was one adventure that stretched our diving skills. Blackjack (made legendary under the command of Capt. Ken McCullar who died on takeoff in another aircraft) was commanded by Capt. Ralph Deloach when she ran out of fuel in a turbulent storm during a bombing run to Rabaul. The pilot attempted to ditch on a shallow reef but missed. The plane skidded into deeper water but all members of the crew were rescued by the nearby villagers of Boga Boga. She now rests in 165 feet of water.
Under the supervision of our divemasters, the more experienced and adventuresome did a decompression dive to 160’ to photograph the props and the gun turret that still turns on the well-preserved body. The rest of us went to 130 feet. Swimming out over the wreck, we had an excellent view of the plane and the divers below.
            A visit to Boga Boga village followed. School children sat on grass mats laid in rows on the dirt floor of their school and participated in a grammar lesson that resembled Wheel of Fortune without Vanna. The pens I handed out went quickly—the children swarmed around me as if it were candy. We shopped the craft market set up specifically for our visit and talked with the villagers. Smiles abounded, some stained red with betel nut juice.
            At breakfast one morning, we learned a trap that had been lowered the night before and baited with chicken now yielded a chambered nautilus. Cousin to the octopus, the nautilus lives at depths of 2000 feet but rises to about 500 feet at night to feed on crab and shrimp. No telling us twice to suit up. We descended to 60’ to photograph and examine the mysterious creature that occasionally peeked out of his creamy shell with the tanned markings.
            Although my husband and I were both nearing 100 dives when we arrived in PNG, we had never encountered a seahorse. Knowing they were at Observation Point, we carefully combed the area. Just as we were ready to give up, I looked down to find a yellow seahorse clinging to a bit of reed in the sand near where my hand rested. We were as excited as the shark hunters who had spotted some hammerheads a few days earlier and the photographer who ended up in the middle of schooling barracudas.
            Mornings came early and no one missed the 5:30 a.m. call to rise before breakfast and go ashore to visit the Bunama hot springs before the heat of the day made it impossible. On shore, a mother and her children greeted us. “My children want to see the white people,” she said. They followed us through their village to the path that leads to the hot springs about a half-mile into the jungle. The tall grasses and bushes gave way to a clearing filled with steam from the boiling springs of hot mud and water that bubbled through the stone floor. We waited a couple of times for the geyser to perform, took the posed tourist shots and then left as the sun began to heat the morning sky.
            On the way back through the village, a friendly teenager, proud of his pet, allowed the braver souls to hold his five foot green tree snake. I marveled at the simplicity of their life as we passed by the huts on stilts, mostly open with some cloth draped for some privacy, and the “kitchens” separate from the sleeping huts that were equipped with a fire pit and a few pots and pans.
            A manta ray cleaning station was scheduled for our last morning dive before returning to Alotau and the trip home. We dropped to 30’ and surrounded a small bommie that the mantas were known to frequent. All of us knelt in the sand, bowing to the slight current, watching the waters around us wondering if they would come. The sun shone down, its rays played on the rocks and coral. I suddenly realized it was Sunday. We looked as though we were worshipping at an altar. The mantas never appeared but there was ample opportunity to give thanks for the wonderful sights we had seen and the people we had experienced in the paradise called Papua New Guinea.

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