Our trip commenced in Rabaul, the capital of East New Britain, which was reached on a two-hour flight from the capital of PNG, Port Moresby.
One of the great things about diving PNG from Australia is that it is possible to leave Sydney in the morning, arrive in Port Moresby in mid-afternoon, transfer onto your domestic flight and be on the liveaboard that night. Although I have to say the transfer in Moresby is never without its worries…
From Rabaul, it is an overnight journey to the south via the St Georges Channel that separates the islands of New Britain & New Ireland. The currents in this area are very strong and treacherous but Alan Raabe is an experienced skipper and we slept peacefully in our bunks while he piloted the boat to our destination and the first day’s diving.
Over the next 10 days, we dived at a variety of locations in the Lindenhaven and Waterfall Bay areas and saw WWII wrecks, reefs in pristine condition and a great variety of critters, reef and pelagic fish. What makes this area special is a fairly unique combination of circumstances.
First of all, just a few miles offshore the seabed starts to drop off into the very deep waters of the Solomon’s Trench and the strong coastal currents mix with the nutrient-rich upwellings of cool water from the trench to produce an optimum blending mechanism that helps to feed the ecosystem and nourish the reefs.
Secondly, the south coast of New Britain is one of the wettest places on earth, which means that in the rainy season the numerous rivers provide another rich source of nutrients.
Thirdly the south coast is a very remote and sparsely populated location and there is only one unpaved logging road that penetrates the dense mountainous rainforest that separates the north coast from the south. Basically, the only access to the area is by sea, which means that the reefs are virtually untouched and in some areas can only be described as pristine!
Another interesting facet of the south coast is that it’s wet & dry seasons are the reverse of the north coast – when it is raining on the north it is dry on the south and vice versa! The reason for this is that the northwest trade winds, which bring in the low-pressure troughs and resultant heavy rain on the north coast do not make it over the mountainous spine of the island. Similarly, the southeast trade winds that bring heavy rain to the south coast are isolated from the north coast by the mountains.
The result of all this is some incredible diving that combines most of the weird & wonderful critters normally only found in Milne Bay with superb reefs and pelagic action usually associated with the Witu Islands.
The south coast really is partly a virgin territory and dive sites are still being identified, which can lead to some disappointing exploratory dives, but once a good site has been located regular access needs to be secured. This means negotiating with the head of the local village, known locally as the “big fella”, to dive in his territory.
When I look back at the trip there were several dive sites that stood out:
West Entrance at Lindenhaven
Lindenhaven is a small village in the Gasmata area and as its name suggests the dive site is on the west entrance to the village. The corals and fish life were both prolific & pristine and are fed by the very strong currents that course through the entrance.
This was probably one of the best reef dives I have ever done and I can still remember the burst of adrenalin as we descended on the reef from the dive tender. There was a time when most reefs would have been as rich as this and I felt truly privileged to be there!
The strength of the currents means that it can only really be dived around slack water but it was the site I enjoyed most of all the ones we did in the 10 days on the south coast.
What made the site completely memorable was the end of the dive when we surfaced and found ourselves surrounded by about 20 local kids, some as young as 5 or 6, in their canoes. They were all highly excited by what we were doing and it was very clear they had never seen anything like it before!
The Blue Hole
The Blue Hole is the source of the Isis River in Waterfall Bay and to dive it means a two-hour trip up the river taking everything you need with you. The trip is spectacular because you go deep into the rainforest that covers New Britain and passes through small villages perched on the riverbanks. The locals appeared fascinated by our presence and gathered to watch us pass through on our way upstream.
The further you go up the Isis River the harder it is to reach its source because the river becomes choked with thick reeds that block the cooling water inlets to our boat’s outboard engines. The only way through is with the help of the local villagers who literally have to dive down and cut a path through with their machetes. It’s quite a site to see village boys as young as 10 or 12 swimming against the fast running river with a huge machete held between their teeth and then diving down to cut the reeds!
It is not possible to motor all the way to the Blue Hole, the closest you can get is about 250m to it and then it is time to carry your dive gear and cameras through the jungle and wade through the river until suddenly the source of the Isis River appears around the corner. This part of the journey was made much easier by the appearance from nowhere of a large number of village children with huge smiles who were very eager to assist us.
The dive itself is rather surreal – imagine quite cool blue water in a deep pool that seems to go down forever and where the main features are large tree trunks that have fallen in over the years. In fact, the bottom is at 48m and what you get for going there is a look at a small fissure with fresh water gushing out like a fire hose!
A truly adventurous day!
Grey Reef Sharks
On several dives, we saw numerous grey reef sharks coming up from the deep in response to our special shark-attracting device (a half-full water bottle rubbed vigorously between two hands…) and aggressively buzzing us.
They are significant creatures and although always wary they seem in complete control and appear to try and tempt you deeper as we strive for that perfect photograph. There was never a point where our excitement turned to fear, but then again there was no food in the water that would have overcome their natural caution.
I always reassure myself that we must look pretty intimidating to these medium size sharks as we are about the same size, or bigger than they are and make a lot of noise. We also don’t emit the kind of signals that attract them unless we use tricks like the water bottle, so why would they come close?
Lying on its back in 15m of water, with one pontoon sticking up into the water and the other broken in the silt, its bomb doors open to expose the two live bombs still in their mountings this WW2 Japanese seaplane is a great dive located in a river close to one of the villages. Some fairly intense negotiations were required on the day we visited because it appeared the “big fella” of the village was determined to extract additional payments from us. The situation was eventually resolved by Alan Raabe & his crew and we were allowed to explore the wreck.
Visibility was not that great due to all the sediment on the wreck but on the day we dived it we could see the full extent of the wreck and the bombs were like magnets that drew us closer.