By Bob Halstead
Grass had grown over the wartime steel “Marsden” matting of Gurney Airstrip and a bumpy landing welcomed me to Milne Bay. It was January 1973 and I had arrived as an Education Officer to teach at the Alotau High School. Along the ribbed and potholed dirt highway from the airstrip to Alotau I soon discovered on which side of the road cars drove – both of them, and the middle.
I had learned to dive in the Bahamas five years previously and was already a qualified Instructor. Where the road followed the shore, Milne Bay’s water sparkled temptingly.
Captain John Moresby, who had sailed the first European ship here exactly 100 years before, had named Milne Bay after Lord Milne of the British Admiralty. He had explored the many islands in what is now Milne Bay Province and discovered China Strait – the sought after “short cut” to China. I had dreams of emulating his adventures by exploring underwater.
Reporting to the Education Office in Alotau, I learned that there was no accommodation ready – so I was sent out in a Government Trawler for a week to pick up students from their island homes. Serendipity had splashed my way. I soon realized I really was in Paradise. People were friendly, attractive and hospitable, their villages set in idyllic scenes of South Seas beauty surrounded by rainforest and reefs of lush vitality.
Sport diving was new to PNG. There were a few keen amateurs in the main centers, mostly diving to spear fish or collect shells, but virtually no tourist divers. There was also a commercial history of pearl diving, and of salvage “pirates” seeking spoils from the many war wrecks.
After settling in to school life I bought a small speedboat and started to teach new colleagues and friends to dive. Among these was my future wife Dinah, who was one of the most natural and talented divers I ever taught. She soon started showing me marine animals I had never even heard of!
We were married, and in 1977 we started PNG’s first full time sport diving business in Port Moresby with a dive shop and school, and ran day trips to the barrier reef out of Bootless Bay. We created an unofficial marine park at Horseshoe Reef and, with Government approval, sank several derelict vessels as dive sites. One of Dinah’s greatest finds, on Horseshoe Reef, was the second-ever specimen of a fantastic scorpionfish known as Rhinopias aphanes. Loloata Island Resort in Bootless Bay is now THE destination for divers wishing to see this fish.
“Solatai”, built in Bougainville in 1979, was our first proper day dive boat, and twice a year I would close down our dive school and take guests, mostly our own certified students but with a growing number of tourist divers, on adventurous “Scuba Safaris” to explore more of Milne Bay. We camped ashore, and, at our favourite villages, we had villagers build a bush materials shelter for us. These were more comfortable (and rain proof) than tents – but not by much. “Solatai” is still going strong, operated by The Dive Centre, Port Moresby.
In the late 1970s, skilled salvage diver and engineer Kevin Baldwin bought a handsome trading vessel he renamed “Seang” that had accommodation for 12 passengers and carried three inflatable boats to dive from. He ran one long scientific charter but soon realized that he needed to go trading to raise the money to keep the boat going, and it never got into tourist diving.
Around the same time Rod Pearce, PNG’s champion wreck finder, built his dive boat “Barbarian”. Rod started to run wreck dive expeditions around PNG but the boat, like “Solatai”, was too small for guests to live aboard comfortably. He now runs a larger boat “Barbarian 2”
Excellent land-based dive resorts were opened at Madang, Loloata Island, Tufi and Walindi. The early days were tough with a lot of reliance on domestic, non-diving, tourism.
But by 1980 the world wanted to dive PNG and See and Sea Travel’s Carl Roessler from San Francisco was leading the pack, as he usually did. Carl contacted me to investigate the possibility of getting a PNG boat to use for tourist diving.
First however we made a trip to Wuvulu Island together where an enterprising American lawyer had built a small beach dive resort for his son who had married a Wuvulu lady. It had some pleasant but not exceptional diving, but no anchorage nor wharf, was weather dependent and required flights on weight-limited small aircraft.
Jean Michel Cousteau had used Wuvulu for his Project Ocean Search expeditions and for that it was ideal because the project’s hardy young people were able to walk the extensive reef flats to discover marine critters and make the occasional dive. The dive resort was never a success, however in 1988 the Cousteau team went back to Wuvulu and it produced some of the most spectacular footage of all the Cousteau expeditions to PNG. Orcas killed a shark and brought it to the cameramen on the surface to film in an extraordinary scene many still remember.
Melanesian Explorer was a 130ft. passenger vessel owned by Melanesian Tourist Services based in Madang and mostly used to take tourists for village visits along the Sepik River. The operator decided that it could be used for dive charters and I could put portable compressors on board and some dive gear and it would be a live-aboard of sorts. I ran one dive trip on her with a group of crazy Italian divers but they mostly just wanted to sunbathe on deck, play cards and shout at each other. Their group leader and I did most of the diving.
I hated this boat since it had very low headroom. It was built initially as a Japanese ferry. I stood 190 cm tall, so continually banged my head on low bits of the ship. Now I’m about 180 cm and bald.
See and Sea Travel was bringing some of Carl’s regular dive travelers and we would have to provide some real diving. Carl told me he had an agreement with the owner that he would have the boat just for his divers but when we turned up we discovered that we were sharing the boat with a group of general tourists who wanted to go ashore, and not dive. I had to restrain Carl, or violence would have ensued.
Since the Explorer could not be anchored on dive sites we had to rely on one of the two ship’s boats to take us diving. All went reasonably well until one of these boats broke down and we were competing with the land tourists.
One day we were diving at the Trobriand Islands. The north coast had a shallow fringing reef that sloped away into deep water. We decided that the boat would drop us off at a likely looking spot and that we would then slowly drift/swim along the reef. The plan was that the boat would stay with us and pick us up as we finished our dives. However as we were getting in the water the boat driver told us he had been instructed to return to the ship to drop some people ashore and he would then immediately come back for us.
Two hours later we were out of air, still without a boat and had been drifting along the reef for an hour. We had just made the decision to swim across the shallow reef flat and get to the beach when it finally turned up. It was about this time I decided I needed my own proper live-aboard dive boat.
No sooner had we re-boarded the Melanesian Explorer than the boat went off again with land tourists aboard. As they moved away, Orcas appeared right behind them. No boat was available for us so we hurried into the water with snorkeling gear but were unable to catch up. I seem to remember banging my head on the ship more often after that missed opportunity.
We were starting to build a logbook of good dive sites, but when you are exploring you have to expect some duds. Coral reefs are not monuments. They have life cycles and, from time to time, may be in poor health. I have seen reefs totally barren after a storm, or after Crown of Thorns Starfish infestation, but, after a few years of rapid re-growth, transform back into coral wonderlands.
Finding the right spot on a reef is important too. One site I will never forgive myself for. With Carl wanting the very best diving I directed the Melanesian Explorer to Alcester Island in the Solomon Sea. This island is surrounded by deep clear water and a fringing reef. It has a splendid village on it and is one of the few places even today to still grow ebony timber. “For every tree we cut, we plant four”, the proud village leader told us.
I picked a point on the reef on the lee side of the island near the village so others could go ashore, and that was our dive site. It was very ordinary. Years later, when we had our own boat, I was able to spend more time exploring and checked out a passage between the main island and a small islet to the east. It is one of PNG’s great dives! A boat ride to the outer wall, into the prevailing current, puts divers into a maelstrom of fishes. Barracudas, jacks, surgeons, Dog toothed tuna, fusiliers, batfish all surging around against a pristine coral background in crystal water. After time with the fishes divers make a leisurely drift back to the boat. It is a superb dive.
But early days were like that, we never knew what we would find and barren dives are often next to fabulous dives. In Madang I helped Kevin Baldwin sink a worn out tugboat, the Henry Leith, because we thought it would make a super dive site next to a picturesque island. It does – but we did not know at the time that, just a short distance away, was the brilliant wreck of a B25 Mitchell aircraft from the War.
We also learned that it is difficult to predict the quality of a dive site just by looking at a chart, or even by looking at the reef from the surface. There is only one way to find out. You have to dive them all, and that is what I set out to do. We started building Telita (from beautiful PNG hardwoods) in Milne Bay in 1984 and in December 1986 she made her maiden voyage of discovery. In 1992 readers of USA “In Depth” magazine voted her the “Best Live-aboard Dive Boat in the World”. We no longer own her but she is still providing wonderful diving adventures.
After 10,000 dives I have now spent more than a year actually underwater in PNG, and still have plenty of dive sites to explore and discover. There is a fleet of world class live-aboard dive boats operating in the country – Barbarian 2, Chertan, Golden Dawn, FeBrina, Kamai, Spirit of Niugini, Star Dancer, and Telita, and PNG is one of the most highly regarded destinations for the world’s top divers.