Papua New Guinea
-The Perfect Location? by Don Silcock
A friend of mine once defined the perfect dive trip location as a place you could get to in a day or less, and once their dive on world-class sites from a first-class live-aboard boat. For most Australians, and come to think of it other most residents of SE Asia, Papua New Guinea has to be a prime contender for the title of the "perfect location".
There are so many places to dive in PNG, and so much to see, that it pays to do your research and decide what kind of diving you really want to do, as each location offers so many different opportunities.
Milne Bay, at the southeastern tip of the main island of PNG is probably the best known of the diving areas and was pioneered by Bob Halstead, and his wife Dinah, on their boat MV Telita in the mid 1980's. Since then other areas such as Kimbe Bay and Rabaul on the island of New Britain, and Kavieng on New Ireland, have been pioneered by people like Max Benjamin at Walindi Plantation and Alan Raabe on MV FeBrina.
For me (a wannabee underwater photographer) on my third trip to PNG in as many years, I was looking for wide-angle reef scenes, World War II wrecks, large marine creatures and a liberal sprinkling of "macro critters". Milne Bay seemed to offer all this and more
In theory you can leave Sydney in the morning, transit through Port Moresby, arrive onboard that evening and wake up to diving in Milne Bay the next morning. However flight connections always seem to work against me and the thought of arriving at Gurney Airport, Milne Bay's airport at the town of Alotao, eager and ready to dive but minus camera gear & dive equipment does not really appeal.
So for this trip I decided that the best option would be to split my diving between Loloata Island just outside of PNG's capital Port Moresby and Milne Bay onboard MV Chertan for 10 days.
Deacon's Reef, Milne Bay. Named by Bob Halstead after one of his guests in the early days of the Telita expeditions, Deacon's is a superb example of the reefs that Milne Bay has to offer. The guest was Kev Deacon the very accomplished Australian underwater photographer who owns Dive 2000 in Sydney and who has been coming to PNG for nearly 20 years. Kev is also the guy who helped me more than anybody else to use a camera underwater and therefore responsible for my current overdraft...
Nikon 801s & 20mm lens in Subal housing -manual. Twin Ikelite 225 strobes on manual. Provia 100 film -1/60 @ f8
Loloata was a great opportunity to get my diving & photographic skills back in shape before hitting the exceptional diving in Milne Bay. It would also allow me to ensure that when I got on board Chertan I was doing so with all of my gear intact and ready to go...
Loloata is an island resort run by Australian expatriates Dik Knight and Dave McDonald, located 10 minutes by boat from Bootless Bay just outside Port Moresby. Originally set up as a weekend retreat, to cater for the large expatriate community in Moresby, Loloata now caters mainly for divers like me transiting through the capital on their way to other parts of PNG.
Trust me on this - Port Moresby is not the sort of place for a quiet evening stroll to find a nice bar for a few quiet beers. Personal security is an issue, but not something to get paranoid about, it just means staying within the grounds of one of the two airport hotels, the Airways or Gateway and catching the first flight the next day. Loloata offers a great alternative to this, as you can literally be relaxing with a cold drink on the island about 45 minutes after clearing customs & immigration at the airport and waking up to an early morning dive the next day.
Onward flights to Milne Bay are generally in the afternoon, so spending a few days at Loloata combined with some careful flight & dive planning allows you to really maximize your dive time.
The diving at Loloata can be exceptional when the conditions are right, and vary
Nikon 801s & 20mm lens in Subal housing - manual. Twin Ikelite 225 strobes on manual. Provia 100 film -1/60 @ f8
Nikon 801s & 105mm lens in Subal housing - manual. Sea & Sea 90 & 30 strobes on TTL. Velvia 50 film -1/60 @ f16
Giants @ Home cleaning station. In just 10m of water, 100m off the shore is the best dive I have ever done - if you like mantas (and I love them) this is the place for you. Not only can you dive with them on scuba, but they are not intimidated by either you or your bubbles and will come in so close that you wish you had invested in the full frame fish-eye
Nikon 801s & 20mm lens in Subal housing - manual. Twin Ikelite 225 strobes on manual (1/4 power). Provia 100 film -1/60 @ f11
from superb reefs - my favorites are Suzie's Bommy & Di's Delight, to wrecks like the 65m long tanker Pacific Gas & an A20 WW2 Havoc bomber to muck diving at Lion Island. All the diving is done from two purpose built 9m aluminium dive boats and is scheduled around two dives in the morning when the conditions are generally at their best, with a single dive available in the afternoon depending on the weather followed by a night dive on one of the more sheltered locations.
The whole operation is well run and the dive staff go out of their way to find those special critters, such as the Rhinopias (Lacy Scorpion Fish) that have made Loloata the PNG epicenter for this spectacular and very photogenic fish.
There is a framed photograph of Chertan displayed in the boat's dining area, it features a rainbow, which forms a magnificent backdrop to the boat at anchor in Milne Bay. Tom Campbell, the famous video producer, took the photograph and signed the words
"To MV Chertan, the best diving and dive operation -anywhere".
I wish I had the experience to agree or disagree with Tom Campbell, but I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed my 10 days on Chertan. I have been on bigger and more luxurious boats but I have never been on a boat where I felt so much at home. This is a real "diver's boat", or to be more accurate it is a real underwater photographer's boat and what makes it that way is the skipper & owner Rob
Vanderloos, his wife Peo and the crew.
In a nutshell they go out of their way to show you the superb reefs & wonderful critters that make Milne Bay so special. Whether you want to dive with the manta rays at their cleaning station [email protected] or the myriad of wonderful macro critters that PNG "muck diving" is so well known for - Chertan's the boat for you!
Rob is an accomplished stills & video photographer, the author of Living Reefs Of The Indo-Pacific and has 17 years of experience diving in Milne Bay. He is also a true gentleman with a great sense of humor and an intuitive understanding of customer satisfaction.
On my to do list for this trip was to actually see, and then photograph, the holy grail of macro underwater photography -
the pygmy seahorse. I explained to Rob how much time I had spent hypnotizing gorgonian fans vainly trying to capture these tiny but incredibly photogenic creatures. Rob's response was to make sure that I was able to put a'"done" tick next to the pygmies, even though it took three different locations to track them down. But it wasn't a case of here they are - see you back on the boat, he showed me how to get them in position and photograph them. No easy task at 20m with a strong current running and the pygmies seem to be able to move to the other side of the fan 2 nanoseconds before you press the shutter!
Onboard Chertan during my trip were Roger Steene & Scott Michael, two very accomplished underwater photographers. Roger, in particular, seems to have been everywhere at least
Located in 50m of water off the romantically named Boga Boga village, the wreck of the WW2 B17 Flying Fortress bomber is a great, if fairly short dive. There are many wrecks in Milne Bay but this has to be one of the best as it is in pretty good condition considering it was crashed landed in the sea over 50 years ago. For more background information check out the following link: http://www.divetheworld.com/Stories/BlackJack/INDEX.htm Nikon 801s & 20mm lens in Subal housing - manual. Provia 100 film pushed to 400 ASA -1/60 @ f4
once and all the "hot-spots" many times over in his 40+ years of underwater photography. I asked Roger why he liked Milne Bay so much as he was doing two back-to-back trips that time and had done the same thing four months previously! His answer was that Milne Bay has almost everything you would want to see and that man (pointing to Rob Vanderloos) makes sure you get to see it!
I couldn't agree more
Raja Empat - the New Nirvana by Will Postlethwaite
Nikon F90 in a Subal housing, 20mm lens, 2 x Sea & Sea YS120 strobes on Full power, 1/[email protected] Fuji Provia 100F.
How do you choose the destination for your next dive trip? As a photographer there are a number of criteria you want to satisfy but in the end there is always a compromise to be made. However, if you after calm, clear water with abundant life including some of the most unusual and rare species to be found, amazing topography cradling the most pristine coral reefs in the world and not another diver in sight then there is a place that scores an easy 10/ 10, Raja Empat.
These islands of the 'Four Kings' are off the north west tip of West Papua and with the recent introduction of a daily flight link to Manado are the latest and hottest destination.
The lid really came off in April 2002 when a group of top marine biologists realeased an assessment of the coral reefs and fishes of the archipelago.
Gerald Allen recorded more fish species in one dive (283) than he had ever seen before and J.E.N Veron identified more coral species and in the best condition than anywhere else on the planet. Truly unsurpassed in every way.
A dive at the house reef off the island of Kri, where Gerry Allen logged his record, or at the nearby Chicken Reef is a experience like no other. Time and again your attention is grabbed by yet another new potential shot. You do not know where to point your lens next!
The number of fish is staggering at all the sites in the seas around these little islands but in the group called Fam two submerged reefs, named Andy's Reef and Demelza's Delight by the crew of our boat, are washed by strong currents and give a daily spectacle that rivals that of the Sardine Run for fish density. Shooting up past the brilliant soft corals straining in the breeze the swaying dark mass of fish blots out the sun dropping you a stop or two! The coral cover is so dense that there is no place for a reef hook but a little finning is worth it for the show.
Also part of Fam are Melissa's Garden and Anita's Garden, plateau reefs around 10m deep that are dripping with colour derived from fans, other soft corals, anemones, anthias and glassfish. Little bommies and islands provide stunning wide angle backdrops to the huge plates of hard coral, metres in diameter, beneath which hide Tassled Wobbegongs that occasionally come out and swim sinuously by. After one dive at Melissa's Garden the boat boy wondered how we had failed to spot the dolphins and Minke Whales that passed by the reef. You really need eyes in the back of your head on these reefs.
The islands are made of limestone karst from ancient coral and their jagged sharpness makes life hard for plants and animals alike. The population density is therefore very low and thus the usual human pressures have not been exerted here. Straddling the equator and forming their own natural barrier, storms and El Ninos also seem to have passed the area by so so that huge sea fans grow undamaged and literally touch the surface of the water. One weird consequence of this protective topography is Kaboei Passage. This small gap between two islands of the Waigeo group feeds into a large bay.
When the tide runs in and out the passage acts like a river and life clings to the banks fed by the flow. With flat calm water the opportunity abounds for bizarre split and through the surface shots showing untouched rainforest bending down to meet pristine coral reef reaching up while little archerfish eye insects on the branches above.
Travelling into Kaboei Bay is a muck divers dream where there is untold super macro for nudibranchs, frogfish and shrimp.
The abundance of sessile
Nikon F90 in a Subal housing, 105mm lens, Inon Quad flash, TTL, 1/[email protected] Fuji Velvia.
Nikon F90 in a Subal housing, 20mm lens, 2 x Sea & Sea YS120 strobes, TTL, 1/80th, Auto. Fuji Provia 100F.
life on every reef affords plenty of hiding places so macro shots are everywhere. Wacky decorator crabs, cowries and gobies stare out from beneath branches and polyps. But the real macro sensation of Raja Ampat is the incredible number of pygmy seahorses. Not just pink and not just Hippocampus bargibanti but the newly named Hippocampus denise in every colour imaginable and many different types of fan, even one only 11m deep.
Your trip will also be punctuated by sailfish, marlin and manta leaping from the ocean right next to your boat. You can scour rafts of weed for Sargassum Frogfish and treck into the rainforest in search of the rarest Birds of Paradise and bizarre waterfalls. These, however, are just some of the unique and special aspects of this amazing archipelago. The waters are full of every type of pipefish, nudibranch and anemone fish imaginable and there are sites like those off Wai where you can dive with mantas while inspecting an untouched WW.II fighter plane with a pink pygmy seahorse under its wing. Further east there are more unlooted wrecks of cruisers and battleships from WWII.
For ten years this area has been a difficult region to visit and only one dive operator, Irian Diving, was based here but now there is a resident liveaboard, the Shakti, and a few other boats run short itineraries. The islands will never get crowded but when you get to dive reefs that have never been dived before or have had maybe less than a thousand divers ever to swim over them then you notice the potential for human damage. This is one of the planet's most special and unique places and Michael Aw is campaigning to get it registered as a protected area. We urge divers to visit this stunning dive destination and by doing so put money into the region to help the local population conserve what really is diving nirvana.
Explore Raja Empat aboard Shakti A.
m i omitas whales ^mi, fi
Contact: [email protected]
12 ni^ht itineraries from
unrivalled diversity coral gardens wobbtjongs pygmy seahorw m i omitas whales ^mi, fi wrecks "V* - . urtdived untouched f,,fi
Contact: [email protected]
By Tony Wu
If bamboo sank, I thought, there's no way we'd be sitting here. What would we be doing instead? How would we stretch our legs? Where would we squat to go to the bathroom?! Odd as it might seem, this was the main thing on my mind. Bamboo.
I suppose that all things considered, my erstwhile fixation on this plant made reasonable sense given my circumstances.
I was at sea again - hungry, parched, exhausted and somewhat concerned that I had virtually no idea where I was.
Given the number of times I've placed myself in similar outlandish circumstances, you would think I'd have gotten used to this sort of thing by now, but a slight sense of anxiety never fails to set in once the sun begins to set, and the immediate distraction of trying to dodge UV radiation strong enough to fry eggs subsides.
So here I was, with five other guys, on a tiny bamboo platform in the middle of the sea, tethered tenuously by a lone rope to the ocean floor several hundred meters below.
Not as crazy as it seems
It would be natural to wonder how I ended up here and what I hoped to accomplish.
First, the platform isn't really as random a structure as it might first seem. In fact, there many of them in the waters around North Sulawesi.
Locally, people call them Fish Huts, which seems a perfectly adequate description to me. More 'sophisticated' people elsewhere refer to them as Fish Aggregating Devices ("FADs"). Whatever they're called, these bamboo platforms serve a single purpose: To attract as many fish as possible.
In deep, open water like this, the sheltered area under the Fish Hut provides refuge for little fish, pelagic larvae and other small creatures. And of course, anytime there's a congregation of small organisms, bigger fish eventually visit, thus attracting even more and bigger fish...eventually leading to the build-up of a substantial community of resident fish.
Which, in a round about way, was my reason for being here. I was hoping to find and photograph pelagic fish communities.
Sleeping With Bamboo Water sloshed against the hollow bamboo logs, producing ghostly echoes, like contemplative rhythms resonating from a Zen monastery.
I lay my head in the narrow, distorted "V" shaped trench formed by two of the logs and contorted the rest of my body as best I could to conform to the hard curves of the bamboo. Centimeters below, the ocean rippled gently in the night breeze. Water sometimes sprayed onto my face, leaving a crusty film of half-dried brine to remind me of where I was.
I lay there half asleep, contemplating, of all things, bamboo.
I recalled that there are literally thousands of species of bamboo. It isn't considered commercial timber, like oak or teak, for instance, but that doesn't mean it's not valuable. Bamboo is flexible and pliable, which makes it easy to use, and adaptable to many circumstances. Yet it's strong, sturdy and reliable at the same time.
It doesn't get water-logged, so you can make all sorts of useful things out of it (like the platform I was on), and it's not terribly susceptible to pests.
Bamboo wood is inexpensive, lasts a long time, and bears its given burden quietly, almost philosophically, like a tireless, uncomplaining friend.
The most striking thing to me about this under-appreciated plant, however, was how entirely uncomfortable it is to (try to) sleep on it in the middle of the ocean.
You Should've Come Last Week
The difficulty with getting images of pelagic fish is that you have to go where they are - the middle of the ocean.
On the whole, it would be much easier, and preferable in my view, if tuna, marlin, large sharks and the like visited shallow waters more often to pose for pictures, but alas, this doesn't seem to be at the top of their list of priorities. Which is why I was tagging along like a dorky kid on a Sunday outing with my friend Anceng in his fishing boat.
We had set out the day before from Bitung, the main port area in North Sulawesi on Anceng's five meter long fishing boat. Normally, the boat - really more a canoe stabilised with bamboo outriggers -carries two people and supplies.
On this trip, we had a total of five passengers, which made for a rather 'cozy' situation. The extra guys were there to babysit me and make sure I didn't do something embarrassing, like fall overboard.
So packed like proverbial sardines in a can, we headed out to search for big fish. As it turns out, we came across a lot of big stuff, which would've been absolutely terrific, if not for one minor issue: temporal displacement.
I kid you not. Every place we stopped, there were sightings of whale sharks, schools of yellowfin tuna, sailfish, pilot whales...you name it.
The one minor problem, of course, was that all the sightings were during the past week or two. Aiyah.
One helpful fishermen, trying desperately to assist, told me that a whaleshark had'"hung out" near his Fish Hut for at least two weeks.
He mistook the pained expression on my face for heat exhaustion, and kindly suggested I go for a quick swim to cool off.
What A Life
And swim I did, not so much to cool off, but more to 'cool off', in the sense of quenching my growing frustration.
As soon as I got in, though, I realised that missing the whaleshark didn't really matter.
It wasn't so much a sudden attitude adjustment on my part, but simply the fact that the visibility below the surface was horrible, just bloody awful. Couldn't see a whaleshark if it tapped me on the shoulder and stuck out its tongue.
So I finned back to the Fish Hut, flopped on like a large, uncoordinated fish, and decided to make the best of it.
While drying off on the 'sundeck', I struck up a conversation with the guy on the Fish Hut (via my friends' translation of course).
"How long have you been out here?"
"Wow, that's a long time. When are you going back?"
"In about four months".
I let that sink in for a moment.
I asked again, and he confirmed again, that typically, he and other fishermen stay for periods of six months on the Fish Huts.
Eegads! Six months? Alone. On a 3 x 8 meter bamboo platform in the middle of the ocean. A small hut, a wok, rice, water, cigarettes, local whiskey, kerosene and a short wave radio. I looked around; that's all he had.
Suddenly, it didn't seem so important that I wouldn't be getting any images of pelagic fish.
"So do you get any visitors, like family or friends?"
"No.", he replied very matter of factly. No wonder he looked delighted to see us.
"What happens when the seas are rough, like during storms and the typhoon season?"
"I stay inside the hut."
"Don't you get seasick?"
A wry smile showed me his cracked, yellowing teeth, or at least those that were left.
I sat silently, watching the sun descend to the horizon, trying to take in the magnitude of what he was saying.
Then he said,""Sometimes, the rope breaks.", in a rather understated manner.
'What rope?', I thought. "You mean the rope that holds the Fish Hut here?...!!!"
Another toothy grin, accompanied by a sparkle in his bloodshot eyes.
"When it happens, I stay inside and wait for the storm to pass. There are lots of boats, so I usually get picked up."
The part that hung in my mind was the word 'usually'.
"What if you don't?"
A very wide smile, -revealing the premature wrinkles and cracks in his complexion. "Sometimes I end up in the Philippines."
We were getting to know each other well enough by now that he knew I wanted to hear more.
"When that happens, I have to contact my employer and hope he sends money so I can come back."
So let me get this straight. He stays on the Fish Hut for six months at a time. He has nearly no visitors. He lives on rice, water and small fish you catch. "Why?", I thought.
As if on cue, he got up and started to fill and light four kerosene lamps.
I learned from my friends that all the guys on the Fish Huts have to keep bright kerosene lamps lit through the night. The light attracts small fish
and other marine organisms to the Fish Hut, which is the first step to aggregating large communities of fish.
When enough fish congregate, the fishermen call into home base on the radio. The Fish Hut owners then dispatch a boat which usually gets there during the night. Upon arrival, the boat surrounds the Fish Hut with a large net to trap the fish.
At dawn, they haul in the net, pass more rice and kerosene to the guy on the Fish Hut, and hurry back to sell the fish for export.
For his trouble, the guy on the Fish Hut gets Rp 300,000 per month (less than US$ 40) plus a small percentage of the sales proceeds.
What a life.
Flying For Fish?
I woke up, or rather fell rudely into consciousness, at first light. The first thing I had to do was crack every joint in my body and work out all the kinks in my neck from trying to be at one with the bamboo.
The night had been calm, and other than being sore, knotted up, hungry, thirsty, grimy, salty and generally smelling of year-old fish guts, everything was just fine.
The guys had stayed up much of the night fishing and our host deep fried the catch of small fish for breakfast, -probably in the same oil he'd been using for the past two months.
Cold white rice, ground red chili, and salty fish fried a crispy dark brown in stale oil at 06:00 hours. Nothing ever tasted quite so good!
We chatted a bit more, then set off once again in search of large fish.
Anceng had been eager to show me his fishing prowess, and today was going to be the day. We hadn't been out long when we came across a pod of very active spinner dolphins which are often accompanied by schools of big fish, particularly tuna.
"Woohooooo!", Anceng and his mate cried out. My friends told me to hang on and watch closely.
One of the many intriguing things I came across tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the boat were a few kites...yes, the kind that you fly.
They were homemade, rather small, with spines made of (you guessed it) bamboo.
I thought it slightly strange to have these kites in the boat but I didn't think it would harm anything if the guys wanted to have a bit of fun while we were out for the serious business of photographing fish.
But when Anceng reached for one of the kites, I truly thought the equatorial heat had gone to his head.
What followed was something I was wholly unprepared for. As we kept pace with the dolphins, Anceng's mate launched a kite high into the air.
Anceng then took control of the kite and as his mate steered, maneuvered the kite in front of the dolphins, which were perhaps half a kilometer away.
Get this...he then used the kite to skip a lure (which was tied to the kite) over the water in front of the dolphins!
One of the guys leaned over and told me to keep my eye on the bouncing bait. Easier said than done. First, the kite was really high up, literally a dot in the sky and the lure was attached by a long fishing line, which was impossible to see.
On the first pass, nothing happened. So we turned the boat around, and Anceng repositioned the kite for another try.
Several attempts later, it happened. A forty kilogram yellowfin tuna leapt two meters out of the water and struck. Two meters. No joke.
Forgetting that I was on a small boat, I jumped up to get a better look and nearly fell out (lucky the extra guys were around to grab me). The powerful tuna hit the water with an enormous splash and plunged into the abyss. The kite plummetted and struck the surface of the water with a nice, crisp "smack!".
The boat slowed. Anceng started to pull the tuna in. Anyone who's ever tried to pull even a small fish in with their bare hands will know how difficult it is. This sucker was well over forty kilograms but it didn't seem to bother Anceng at all. Within a few minutes, the fish was in the boat.
As it turns out, we were all so busy scurrying around the boat, rearranging items to make room for the tuna, that we lost sight of the dolphins and hence the school of fish.
The ocean is so amazingly big, it's deceptively easy to lose hundreds of dolphins and fish.
We cruised in silence for several more hours...Anceng fuming at losing the chance to catch more tuna; my friends desperately scanning the horizon for tell-tale splashes; and I, pondering over my recent experiences.
As the sun started its daily descent, we decided to head back home rather than spend another night out on the bamboo.
It's funny...I should've been cranky and disappointed. The visibility had been poor. I didn't get the images of pelagic fish I came for.
But when we reached the harbour and regrouped for our first real meal in days, I couldn't have been more content.
You see, I had learned something valuable.
As I left my friends after our final dinner together, I recalled once again the haunting sound of water striking the hollow bamboo of the Fish Hut platforms, the sound that permeated my dreams each night.
What was only noise before became a coded message from the sea, whispered to me during my nights on the Fish Huts.
Like so many thousands of species of bamboo, the numerous fishermen of North Sulawesi -the inshore fishermen, the robust, wandering fishermen like Anceng, the lone sentinels who spend months, sometimes years, in virtual solitary confinement on the Fish Huts, and the multitude of other fishermen I didn't have a chance to meet - all possess and share a common inner strength.
Like bamboo, they're not particularly glamorous, rich or sophisticated. They don't get the funding, attention or respect of, say, the large fishing fleets from more advanced nations. They lead a hard life, filled with daily trials and tribulations most of us can't begin to fathom.
But also like bamboo, they are a strong, genuine lot who make the best of their circumstances. They endure whatever comes their way without complaint. They bear their burdens in silence. Storms, loneliness, back-breaking labour, getting swept to foreign lands...it's all in a day's work.
They are, in a sense, bamboo personified. From the Fish Hut platforms to outriggers for their boats and the spines of their kites, the fishermen's lives depend upon bamboo. At the same time, their gentle nature and enduring demeanor reflect the unique character and resilience of this precious, if not underrated, plant.
In North Sulawesi, the fishermen are the framework of society. And by virtue of the many fish they catch and export, many more of us well beyond the immediate area depend upon these strong, silent men in some way. They, like bamboo, are truly unsung heroes.
This was the message from the sea during my sleepless, bamboo nights.
Tony Wu www.tony-wu.com www.silent-symphony.com
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