Famed for its coral reefs, Second World War wrecks and critter dives, Papua New Guinea is in many ways the complete scuba destination
Back in the day Papua New Guinea was touted as the ultimate diving destination. Exotic, remote and pristine, its reefs were the stuff of legends. All the leading underwater photographers of the day went there.
Times changed and Papua New Guinea drifted out of fashion – macro diving may have started there, but the specialist macro sites of Indonesia’s Lembeh Strait became the place for critters. The big names had moved on to new challenges, Raja Ampat in West Papua was the hot new destination, and things began to slow down in PNG. At its peak, there were about eight liveaboards operating there – today there are only four.
While the rest of the world was fussing over the mantas of Hanifaru and the latest crazy fish in Ambon, I wanted to revisit Papua New Guinea to see if those fabled reefs are still as beautiful. I dived with three different operations, all of which were feted back in PNG’s heyday. How would they stand up today?
Loloata: Location, Location, Location
By the time you arrive at Port Moresby airport, you will be at the end of your tether with jet lag. The choices are to fly on to your final destination, book an expensive airport hotel or head to Loloata Island Resort in Bootless Bay. There’s no fuss on arrival, so less than 30 minutes after clearing customs, I had arrived at Loloata and was setting up my camera, albeit somewhat bleary-eyed.
Loloata is owned and managed by Australian expat Dik Knight. The resort is set on a hilly little island, which guests share with some exotic fauna – countless wallabies, parrots, a tree kangaroo and some strange big blue birds, apparently local pigeons.
Diving takes place from covered aluminium skiffs, and with most sites about 30 minutes from the island, you can comfortably pop back for a spot of lunch after the morning session. Much of the diving takes place on coral pinnacles or bommies located in the path of local currents, where the energy of the water promotes some frenetic fish action.
Susie’s Bommie is the epitome of Loloata diving. At depth, you get wonderful big red gorgonians and soft corals, while the shallows are a patchwork of stony corals. The first thing you notice is the fish activity – sweetlips, snapper and jackfish swirl in ever-shifting patterns around the crown of the reef, riding the currents. Stonefish lurk, anemones are bursting with different species of anemonefish, and banded sea snakes undulate through the coral looking for prey.
Loloata’s speciality is the elusive Rhinopias scorpionfish variant, also known as the lacy scorpionfish. These were absent during my visit in September, when the seas are a little rougher and the more delicate reef-dwellers disappear, either to deeper water or into cracks in the reefs. Still, in just three days I had several sightings of wobbegongs, bottom-swelling sharks that lie camouflaged on the sea bed.To my frustration, the first one I came across was lying under a big table coral, with just its tail sticking out. Desperate to photograph the shark, I was briefly tempted to give its tail a tweak and cause it to move.
I know… it would have been very naughty, so you’ll be glad to hear I didn’t give in to temptation. Besides, wobbegongs are notoriously ill-tempered, and noted for their ability to spin around 180 degrees and clamp intractable jaws around prey and recalcitrant divers alike. Dik has a theory that they use the end of their tails as bait, like a sort of reverse anglerfish.
My last few dives at Loloata took me to a muck-diving site to photograph emperor shrimp and ghost pipefish, followed by a visit to the area’s signature wreck: the Pacific Gas, a coral-coated beauty that I wrote about in our December 2010 issue. Frankly, every trip to PNG should start or end at Loloata on the basis of location alone. The resort itself is basic but well run, and the food is fresh and delicious.
Walindi: Setting the standard
Owned by Australian agriculturalists Max and Cecile Benjamin, Walindi is a PNG institution, having provided a template for the modern scuba eco-resort. It provides a stylish, laidback base for diving the famous reefs of Kimbe Bay.
Almost all of the dive sites around Walindi are large coral bommies, and they are all in astonishing condition. The shallows are often covered in pristine staghorn coral – a rare sight these days – while deeper sections are dominated by voluminous red gorgonian fans and forests of pink sea whips. A recent study revealed there are more than 400 species of reef-building corals in Kimbe – that’s half the coral species in the world.
One of my favourite sites is Susan’s Reef, some 30 minutes from the jetty at Walindi. Two reefs are joined by a saddle at 24–40m, where whip corals grow in a density and profusion I have never seen anywhere else. In common with many of the bommie dives in this area, there is a resident school of barracuda, and usually a few bigeye trevally. Along the shallower section of the reef, a school of bright red pinjalo snapper formed a living wall, while longfin batfish swirled out in the blue water beyond the reef. Visibility was easily 30m and water temperature was 31°C. The reefs are heart-meltingly beautiful, the water is perfect, and you will always be the only dive boat on the site.
Before I get lost in the purple prose of praise, it’s worth saying at this point that Walindi is not perfect. The house reef, Hanging Gardens, is a nice enough sponge reef, but it is also the single most boring night dive I have ever done. Honestly, I didn’t see a single fish; I wanted to call it ‘Curfew Reef’. To be fair, the dive centre staff are fairly upfront about this.
One of my favourite Walindi routines is the lunchtime visit to Restorf Island, a pretty little coral islet where the boat moors for a picnic lunch. The snorkelling is superb, and is enlivened by the presence of a reat barracuda. However, even his thunder was stolen by the birdlife: a dive guide threw a half-eaten chicken drumstick into the air, whereupon a kite swooped down from the treetops and grabbed it, mid-air. Cue wild applause and cries of ‘again!’ from the dive boat.
It’s not all about the reefs. One of the signature dives is a Japanese Zero fighter lying perfectly intact on a bed of black volcanic sand. Aside from a single anemone situated on the fuselage and a little sponge, it has virtually no encrusting life. You are looking at a perfectly preserved snapshot of the Pacific War. The best theory is that the pilot ran out of fuel on his way back to the airfield at Kimbe, and had to set down on water. When the fighter was discovered, the sliding roof was open and there were no remains inside, so it seems the pilot escaped and swam to the nearby shore.
Febrina: Poetry in motion
The liveaboard FeBrina, owned and skippered by the incomparable Alan ‘Mad Dog’ Raabe, is the last of our PNG institutions. Alan has been working these waters since 1991, when FeBrina first started working out of Walindi. He is something of a rough diamond, but his skills and passion as a skipper are beyond doubt, and his many anecdotes are hilarious, if unprintable for legal reasons. I joined a charter to give me a wider picture of the Kimbe Bay area.
The first morning was spent diving the most remote sites on the normal Walindi day-boat range, then we steamed north towards the Father’s Reef area, in the shadow of the still-smoking volcano Mount Ulawun. The reefs here are similar to the bommies of Walindi, but with greater numbers of fish and more pelagics. The silver fish schools were bigger, there were more jacks, more snapper... and the resident great barracuda were even bigger.
PNG is not entirely immune from shark fisheries, but its coastal reefs are the property of the local tribes and not fished on an industrial level. The FeBrina conducts small-scale shark feeds, which manage to attract a fewsilvertips, blacktips and grey reef sharks. During one (unbaited) night dive, I was accompanied back to the boat by a pack of seven silvertips, which darted in and out of my torch beam. I decided to curtail my safety stop on that one.
Conditions in the Father’s area were the best I have experienced on a coral reef. The sea was utterly calm and visibility a genuine 50m. The diving is easy and straightforward: the liveaboard uses its own permanent mooring, and you just jump off the back and swim around the reef. It is made even easier by the FeBrina’s excellent crew, who deploy a weighted safety line under the boat, so you can follow it directly to and from the moorings. They’ve got it down to a fine art.The crew is composed entirely of PNG nationals, led by the aristocratic Josie. The other dive guide is ‘Digger’, a noted critter-finder who has turned up more unknown species than just about anyone else in this region. When the boat made a crossing to the Witu Islands, he continually amazed us by finding unexpected little treasures: commensal crabs on soft corals, baby sargassum frogfish in drifting seaweed, crinoid shrimps, nudibranchs, pygmy seahorses... the list went on.
At the Witu Islands, we met plantation owner Dickie Doyle, who is close friends with Captain Alan and often cadges lifts on the liveaboard. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the country and its history gave guests a chance to learn more about PNG from a real expert. Although he is not a diver, a patch of reef in front of his island home is a marvellous muck dive, named Dickie’s Place in his honour. It had heaps of nudibranchs, ribbon eels and gobies.
The FeBrina is not the most spacious liveaboard in the world, but is about the right size for 12 passengers. Alan Raabe is passionate about making sure his guests get the best possible diving, and for most of the trip, the crew lay on anincredible five dives a day, meaning you can do more than 30 dives over a one-week charter. At first, I thought this was just too much, but the reefs were so beautiful, I couldn’t bear to miss a dive. A class act.
Papua New Guinea is a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. In terms of financial outlay, it is on a par with the other destinations in its league, the Cocos/Raja Ampat/Polynesia axis. Much of the cost is tied up in the flights, so it is no place for a short getaway. To get your money’s worth, you need to stay for two to three weeks, which should come in at around £4,000. What you get for your money is variety, quality and exclusivity. Nowhere else has such a comprehensive array of unspoiled reefs, historic wrecks and exotic critters. The reefs were not quite as fish-rich as I had been led to imagine, but in all other areas the diving was incredible, by any standards.
Anti-malarial medication is essential, no matter what hardened locals tell you about malaria being ‘not that bad’. Most travellers use Malarone (taken once daily), but consult your GP on this and other health issues. Avoid mosquitoes by wearing long trousers at dusk, and spraying yourself liberally with DEET mosquito repellent before venturing out.
It’s a long, expensive journey. I flew with Malaysia Airlines via Kuala Lumpur and Manila (incorporating two overnight stops on the way back). For the Manila–Port Moresby segments, I flew with the national airline, Air Niugini, which had a terrible reputation a few years ago but has recently upped its game. Still, that didn’t stop them losing my luggage on the return journey (it arrived two days later, having paid a flying visit to Perth). It’s also feasible to route your flights via Singapore or Australia.
Medical evacuation from PNG is incredibly expensive, so you must make sure your insurer will cover it, to the extent of obtaining written proof prior to travel. Max Benjamin of Walindi says that in his experience, DAN is the only scuba insurer with a proven track record of medical evacuations in this part of the world. There is a hyperbaric facility in a private hospital in Port Moresby.
When to go
Diving is possible year-round, but the best times to visit for sea conditions are generally mid-April to mid-June and mid-September to mid-December. Water temperatures range from 26°C on the fringes of the Coral Sea to 31°C in the Kimbe Bay area – a 3mm or shortie is fine for most divers.
Walindi Plantation Resort and FeBrina