By Bob Halstead
Driving around Port Moresby Harbour I often looked out to the wreck of the Macdhui. It lies on its port side in about 12 metres of murky water – sunk by Japanese bombers on June 18th 1942. Since the water is shallow, much of the wreck shows above the surface. I once went out to the wreck to take photos on its rusty hull, but I never actually dived it.
The murky water put me off. Then there were the stories; aggressive and highly venomous sea snakes owned the wreck; giant groupers lurked in the dark holds and swallowed divers whole, and, best of all, a diver described a huge Tiger shark that swam past him. The diver had to hide inside the ship, and he counted stripes for five minutes before the tail went by. To survive he had to climb up on the hull. Most of these stories were the fare of the old Royal Papua Yacht Club that had salvaged the Macdhui’s main mast and erected it outside the clubhouse. The Yacht Club has an elegant new building and marina now – and retained the historic mast that stands proudly at the clubs entrance. I expect today’s stories are even taller than the mast.
But in the early 1980’s I was busy running a dive school and shop. I ran our dive boat Solatai out of Bootless Bay, a few kilometres along the coast near Loloata Island, rather than Port Moresby, and neglected to dive the Macdhui. A silly mistake because a few divers did managed to salvage all sorts of interesting artefacts – including fine china – from this 104m long cargo/passenger vessel. I was also busy getting possession of other derelict vessels from Port Moresby harbour, preferably while they still floated, and arranging for these to be donated to the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation, with whom we had excellent relations, and then sank as dive sites.
The Justine was an old twin-screw motor barge 22m long that had been sitting in Port Moresby harbour for a number of years. The Harbourmaster wanted it moved but it was a convenient platform and marker for the local water ski club and they were reluctant to lose it. Even though watchmen were employed to look after it, one night it sank and that forced the situation.
Pacific Towing had the salvage job along with local diver Phil Lupton. The Justine was raised using large inflatable salvage bags and friends from Pacific Towing agreed to tow the barge, still hanging from the salvage bags, to Lion Island for me, and put it on the sea bed there. I remember waiting patiently at Lion Island for the slow tow to chug around Pyramid Point and sure enough it eventually appeared on the horizon. Alas the wind had picked up and my excitement turned to dismay as I realised the tug was not moving any closer.
The salvage bags were chaffing free and the salvors had no choice but to sink the barge at the nearest reef slope. Down it went. That was August 21st 1983. I had an approximate position but never went searching for the wreck and it became another forgotten dive.
But in April 2009 I joined adventurer Craig de Wit on his stellar liveaboard Golden Dawn cruising from Port Moresby out into the Coral Sea to explore Eastern Fields, Ashmore and Boot Reefs. We had a fabulous time diving with sharks, Potato cod, manta rays, sea snakes and a multitude of Coral Sea fishes on reefs of outstanding health and beauty. We even inspected an old reef-top wreck with large anchors and cannon – but alas no treasure – except for the magical dives in sun-sparkling surf.
Returning to Port Moresby some guests had to depart early, but a few of us had some extra time before flight schedules and surface intervals enforced a stop to our dives. We had an opportunity to dive somewhere different – somewhere forgotten in fact. The Justine and the Macdhui!
Justine was easy to find as Neil Whiting, author of the splendid book “Wrecks and Reef, Port Moresby PNG” (Robert Brown 1994 ISBN 1 86273 084 9) went searching for it before writing his book and has published its GPS position.
This turned out to be an evening dive with low light. The wreck was upright with its barge ramp down the slope and wheelhouse at the top in shallow water. At first I was a little disappointed – but when I got to the wheelhouse I realised it was full of fishes and colourful gorgonians and sponges. A crocodile fish appeared then dashed off. The hull creates a swim-though, and the port propeller and rudder are covered in marine growth. It is a pleasant and easy dive.
We dived the Macdhui the next day. Submerged plastic bags, the curse of city harbours, were evident but the harbour was cleaner than I remembered, and actually the water looked quite clear.
We tied up to the wreck and dived. The day before I had shot up most of a home-rolled Velvia “24” roll of film. Really not expecting to be able to shoot much at the Macdhui, I did not reload for what was the last dive of the trip – I just wanted one or two decent shots. So I decided to swim around the whole wreck planning a good image before shooting the scene. With the bright sun and “decent” visibility – I admit the water did get thicker near the bottom – I would be able to get good natural light photos. I shot the best one, and wound on, and had another shot ….. and another …..and another. Now I thought I must have pulled the film off the can, but could fix that so kept shooting actually taking another 8 before the film suddenly stopped. It had reached its end and I had a dozen shots. My friend Pete Atkinson, who had donated the roll when he switched to digital, had loaded a roll end with 34 shots on it. Thanks Pete!
I loved the dive. The shapes and light were fascinating. There was plenty of wreck junk and unrecognisable machinery, but not much in the way of fish life. Alas no Giant groupers or Tiger sharks, and not a single sea snake. Pity. It was not even scary.
It could be that you too have forgotten about the Macdhui and the Justine. Take my advice and go dive them. Then join the Royal Papua Yacht Club and tell outrageous stories just like the one I tell about the giant octopus that ripped off my facemask as I entered the Macdhui’s forward hold.