The MV Oceania | Papua New Guinea
Graeme Gourlay reviews a new liveaboard in Papua New Guinea - the MV Oceania
As I waited at Port Moresby to catch the flight up to New Britain to board a new liveaboard plying Kimbe Bay and farther afield, I bumped into a fellow diver who lived in PNG. On telling him my destination, he replied: ‘You’ll love it. It’s Jurassic Park up there.’
He was right on both counts.
A few days later I was on the top deck of the MV Oceania which was moored inside a flooded crater of an extinct volcano surrounded by steep jungle-clad cliffs. I was watching the locals in dugout canoes trade with the boat crew – fresh mangoes and coconuts for packet noddles, rice and soap.
Coming up was a glorious night dive on the precipitous wall on a tiny islet, resplendent with ginormous nudibranchs (they must be on steroids), ornate ghost pipefish, some brazen spiny lobsters, bizarre and quite creepy Lambert’s worm sea cucumbers writhing and infesting a giant sponge and slipper lobsters the size of dinner plates.
You enter the crater through a narrow gap in the rim of the caldera – a basin more than two nautical miles wide and 400m deep with 200m cliffs encompassing seven-eights of its perimeter. This magical spot is home to a small village of fishers and farmers complete with an incongruous Catholic Church (this part of PNG was a German colony from 1885 until the end of the First World War) and the now deserted home of the legendary Dickie Doyle – a Harley Davidson-driving, copra farmer, engineer and raconteur who lived all his life in PNG.
On the 10-day cruise, we travelled from the Walindi Resort across Kimbe Bay to the Fathers Reefs and then the 80 odd nautical miles over to the Witu Islands. We ended the trip with two days sampling the very best of Kimbe Bay’s seamount diving – Bradford Shoals and Joelle’s – as we returned to Walindi.
Each dive was distinct and packed with surprises. Topographical treats such as two arches, side by side, piercing the top of a seamount at a depth of 20m. Vast schools of barracuda which seemed to enjoy being herded by the dive guides for the benefit of underwater photographers. Second World War Japanese warplanes sitting mournfully on the seabed. Fascinating muck and night dives with the usual strange cast of critters. Skittish grey, whitetip and silvertip reef sharks responding to the noise of plastic water bottles being rubbed underwater (one theory is it sounds like the death throes of giant trevally). The crew of the Oceania don’t chum the water as other liveaboards do; hence, the shark encounters tend to be fleeting.
The reefs are generally healthy with scatterings of storm damage but plenty of evidence of strong bounce back from previous bleaching episodes with lots of new growth staghorn corals. The diversity and profusion of hard coral can be overwhelming with, at times, every square centimetre of the reef layered with species after species of coral – scientific studies have recorded more than 400 types of stony coral in the bay.
The fish life is equally impressive with clouds of swirling schools of Spanish mackerel, bigeye trevally, blue-lined snappers, scissortail fusiliers, batfish, unicornfish, humpnose bream and many more cascading down the reefs, all moving at different speeds and to their own unique rhythms. Flashes of bright primary colours mingle with silver flanks which light up when caught by the penetrating sunlight. On many occasions, I was immersed, surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of fish. Scientists have recorded 860 different species of reef fish in the area.
Kimbe Bay is a wonderful cauldron of marine life, protected by the volcanic mountains of New Britain, it is dotted with seamounts and reefs and swept by the Southern Equatorial Current which flows from the deep and rich waters of the Solomon Sea into one of the world’s richest and warmest stretches of ocean – the Bismarck Sea. The seamounts act as beacons in the ocean rising up from the depths attracting hordes of pelagics gorging on the multitude of fish sustained by the upwellings of plankton. In September to November, the visibility is a stunning 30m plus. As the water warms between January through to March (29ºC+) visibility declines to 15 to 20m. May to June is the doldrums with the warmest waters of 31ºC. The South Easterly trade winds blow during July and August limiting trips outside of the protection of the bay.
The diving aboard MV Oceania is well run and you are treated like grown-ups with few prescriptive demands by the guides who are more than willing to let you do your own thing and only help out with critter spotting when appropriate. Perhaps some divers might prefer more hand-holding, but I’m sure that would be forthcoming if you requested it.
All the diving is from the boat – there is a diving tender, but in more than 30 dives it was always possible to both enter from the dive deck and return to it. The advantages of diving seamounts and the shallow draft of catamarans!
Above, map of PNG, below a bathymetric map of Kimbe Bay showing the seamounts rising from the depths (The Nature Conservancy)
The boat was always moored from fixed points. A redundant tank is suspended from the rear of the boat at 5m, as are two weighted safety-stop lines. One neat addition is blue lights on the underside of each hull switched on to guide you home after your night dive.
You dive on 12-litre tanks. Nitrox is readily available but at an extra cost. In this day and age, I personally feel it should be included in the basic cost (put your prices up if necessary), particularly when diving in such a remote destination (DAN evacuation insurance is strongly advised), as anything which encourages everyone to dive on nitrox in such locations makes sense.
This 27m catamaran was completely refitted by co-owner and skipper Dan Johnson in six frantic months running up to April 2019. Max and Cecile Benjamin, the founders of Walindi and Alan Raabe, who runs the renowned liveaboard MV Febrina out of the resort, decided they needed to add a new vessel to their offerings of some of the world's best and most adventurous diving. After much searching (Dan travelled to the Red Sea to look for a suitable boat) the Oceania came on the market in Australia after a previous purchase fell through and was quickly snapped up.
The first trip was in April 2019 and she is covering pretty much the same itineraries as the Febrina - depending on seasonal conditions. The delights of Kimbe Bay (and there are many), the vibrant offshore reefs called the Fathers at the eastern edge of the bay and out to the wild Witu Islands. Occasional trips to the macro playgrounds of Rabaul are also squeezed in. Dan has plans to explore further afield – both out further around New Ireland and down to Milne Bay. There is still much diving to discover in the region.
It barely seemed as if this is a new liveaboard. Considering I dived it little over four months after its inaugural voyage, it was remarkably well oiled and had the feel of a well-honed team who had worked together for years.
Skipper Dan Johnson
Dan, 44, from Essex in the UK, is the part-owner of the Oceania and with his Australian wife used to run the diving out of Walindi. He has worked in the area for more than seven years and has skippered a number of liveaboards in the region. He has done more than 5,000 dives and worked in Mexico, Thailand and PNG. He is a larger-than-life character full of enthusiasm and energy – get him talking about his days as a London punk replete with purple Mowhawk haircut.
Trip Directors Mike Workman & Faustine Hoffman
Canadian Mike, 32, and French Faustine, 38, have been married for five years and have worked together as instructors and dive guides in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Honduras. Mike, originally from Ottawa, has been diving for nine years and has logged just under 3,000 dives. Faustine, from Avignon, has been diving for 11 years and has just over 3,000 logged dives.
Engineer Ben Sauke Dive Guides Bale Walaun & Lucas Meta
Ben, 34, from New Britain, has been working as a ship's engineer for seven years. When he gets a chance he loves to dive and particularly likes sharks. Bale, 36, from Duke of York, New Britain, is a sharp-eyed critter spotter with more than 5,000 dives under his weight belt. Lucas, 29, from Walindi, has more than 10,000 dives in his logbook and is eager to see more orcas underwater. He also has a mean trick of tightrope walking – see below.
The bright and airy catamaran is spread over three decks. At the top is the sun deck. Underneath is the main saloon with two dining tables and a seated area, the bridge, quarters for the trip directors and an outside seating area. The lower deck houses a comfortable dive deck with 16 stations each with a kit locker, a reasonably sized camera table and two dunk tanks. Inside are eight en-suite cabins – three doubles with Queen-sized beds and five twins, plus further crew's quarters at the front of the boat.
Care and lots of thought have gone into the refit. The standard of fittings is high – excellent rainfall showers, the most comfortable mattresses I have slept on in a liveaboard, good light switches and USB slots on the multi-plug 240-volt electric sockets. This is not the most spacious or luxurious of boats, but for serious divers, it has all you would want and at a very high standard.
Sea Speed aluminium catamaran launched 2001 • Length 27m (88ft), beam 9m (29ft), draft 1.91m ( 6ft 3in) • Full refit 2018/19 • Cruising speed of 13 knots • Two Caterpillar 3306 turbo diesel engines • Two Bauer PE300 compressors • Pilot nitrox compressor.
PNG still has some of the best diving on the planet. What it lacks in pretty coral gardens and guaranteed megafauna encounters, it more than makes up for with its wild diversity, the frontier feel and the sheer joy of seamount diving. The MV Oceania is just the vessel to explore such a region: an enthusiastic, knowledgable and passionate crew and a comfortable and carefully thought out boat, designed for divers by divers. Great liveaboards have a special vibe – they are fun to be on and make light of the inevitable travails of life at sea. They work well, people pull together and they deliver exceptional diving. The Oceania ticks all those boxes and no doubt will only get better as it settles into its groove.
To check out detailed itineraries and to find out more about the boat go to www.mvoceania.com