By Bob Halstead
We had blue sky and sea, and a gentle breeze – pretty much perfect diving weather, but we still had a couple of hours cruising before reaching Aua Island and reef in the Bismarck Sea. One of the crew yelled out and pointed. There was something floating off the port bow. Captain Craig de Wit steered the Golden Dawn towards an abandoned fishing buoy, a sophisticated one, with a high radio aerial.
There was a mess of line and canvas around and beneath the buoy, and I guessed it was from a long-line fishing boat. I hate long-line fishing. The hooks catch indiscriminately, and the owners often illegally fish far too close to islands resulting in kilometres of nylon line hung up all over the reefs. If I were in charge I would make them clear the mess up, then sink all their boats for dive sites.
The crew jumped in the inflatable boat to check the buoy out. The first thing they did was to liberate a tangled young turtle that they brought back to the boat. Fortunately it was in good health, but we did not put it straight back in the ocean as we could see a shiver of excited sharks below, stirred up by our activity.
“Shark Dive!” Craig declared, and we rushed into our gear. We would not have to wait for an island dive after all. I grabbed my camera and was soon in the boat heading for the buoy. The sharks were congregating right below us. As I rolled in I remember thinking “Hell, do I want to live forever?” Sure enough the sharks were all over me and I swung my camera around to bump a couple that were just a bit too close to my juicy legs. Soon all the divers were in, and the sharks calmed down. They were Silky Sharks, most very small but with larger relatives in the background.
I have never accidentally dropped my camera but I found myself clutching it fiercely knowing that if I did let it go, it would be gone forever. I had to concentrate on maintaining my depth and not going too deep. Later Craig told us that he was concerned that some divers were dropping 30 to 40m, well away from the boat, and vulnerable if a really big shark did turn up – but big sharks are overfished, and rare these days
But we had a glorious hour, revelling in the sunlit sky, crystal ocean water and the cheeky Silky Sharks. Sunbeams search-lighted the magical depths as we peered and scanned for monsters. I descended a little, swam away from the other divers and worshiped the glorious view. It was fabulous experience, suspended in inner space. Alas it ended too soon. We salvaged the buoy so it could not trap any more turtles, released the turtle we had freed and had an exuberant breakfast with extra bacon and pancakes while continuing our cruise to the island.
The unexpected is predictable in Papua New Guinea. Craig de Wit is a Captain that understands adventure and scorns “the guided tour”. He knows the great dive sites in the Bismarck Sea but his priority is to try sites he has not dived before – and, in the area we were in, if Craig has not dived them, then probably no one else has. This site was oceanic and transient, and according to the chart, we had 2,000m of water below us.
Open ocean dives are very different from reef dives and they do not feature regularly in most divers’ logbooks. I wonder how well some divers would cope. Craig had concerns that divers were sinking too deep, and without any reference that is a very easy thing to do. You have to use your depth gauge and check your buoyancy far more than you would do on a reef or even a wall.
It is a good idea to practice by swimming off into deep water at a site you are familiar with. Just as you lose sight of the reef and boat, a magical sensation takes over and the weightlessness of diving is enhanced.
Do not be surprised if something big swims out of the blue towards you – Craig himself, on his first Open Ocean dive many years ago in the Coral Sea out of Port Moresby, had a Black marlin check him out.
As the Boy Scouts say – “Be Prepared”.