ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT WHARF DIVES
By Bob Halstead
The first European to see the tiny island of Samarai was Captain John Moresby on a voyage of exploration and discovery for the British Admiralty in 1873.
As John Moresby wrote “After pulling six or seven miles to the west, we found our conjectures verified by the discovery of a clear broad blue channel, two miles wide, leading fair from sea to sea – fit for a fleet to pass through under sail. Our hearts filled with delight and wonder as we looked. There and then I named it China Straits; the wish being father to the thought that I had found a new highway between Australia and China.”
Previously ships had to sail 250 nautical miles to the east to clear the Louisiade Archipelago, and many failed to make it.
Overjoyed at his discovery he went ashore to celebrate and dine on an island in the Straits and, with a lack of his usual shrewdness, called the place Dinner Island. He had modestly named Port Moresby after his father, and later named Milne Bay and Normanby, Fergusson and Goodenough Islands after his bosses, all Lords of the Admiralty. He was a man determined for greatness.
Fortunately “Dinner” was soon forgotten and the island reverted to its traditional name of Samarai. Please note the spelling – no “u”, there is no Japanese connection!
Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits were the first European residents of Samarai – Missionaries from the London Missionary Society, Mercenary gold prospectors and pearl divers, and government Misfits posted to this remote outpost. Since the Missions and Government agreed that the best way to bring civilisation to the “natives” was to teach them to play cricket, the island swamp was soon filled, spears became wickets and shields became bats. Jolly good show!
But two home teams is one too many, so the missionaries were deported to nearby Kwato Island to fill in another swamp and soon both home and away matches were held, and civilisation bounded forward.
Samarai grew, four hotels and two hospitals were established, and a large wharf built to berth overseas steamships. Around 1900 it was the Government headquarters and biggest town in Papua. After a brutal punitive expedition against villagers was ordered by the acting administrator, C.S. Robinson, the Missions condemned him and, distraught, he committed suicide. This upset the miners who erected a memorial to the man whose “aim was to make New Guinea a good country for white men”. The memorial stands to this day, its racist remark a poignant reminder of the foibles of colonialism.
Samarai was “The Pearl of the Pacific” and became a magnet for adventurers of all kinds – even Malinowsky, the renowned anthropologist, stayed for a while. Business and Government flourished. Fine homes were built and a bakery and soda water factory produced essential food and drink. Rubbish was dumped at sea just off the wharf – but in those days everything was biodegradable, except for glass.
Now divers can scavenge through the multitude of modern beer bottles, to find torpedo and marble-stoppered bottles from the 1890’s. Poorly blown, with imbedded bubbles, some of these bottles have laid undisturbed for so many years that the glass is thicker on the side the bottle has laid on. Most, abraded by the sand and sea, are without financial value, but fascinating for their history. A fine display can be viewed at Tawali Dive Resort. Probably the most sought after is the marble bottle marked “Patchings – Samarai” made especially for the soda factory on the island.
Eventually Port Moresby became the centre for government and Samarai, lacking a convenient airstrip, was not even deemed suitable for the Provincial (District) Headquarters. In 1968 the town was moved to Alotau. Even some grand houses were moved piece by piece, the remaining cement stairways rising perhaps to heaven – but nowhere else.
Samarai, somehow still retaining its charm, defiantly surrenders to tropical mould, rust and termites, and big ships pass her by. Even so the eastern section of the wharf still stands while the middle section was demolished and the west section left to fall apart. A pearl farm, gallantly breeding Gold Lip pearl shell in a bio-clean room inside an ancient warehouse, has brought back enterprise, and happy greetings are the rule from the friendly inhabitants, but the fact is that Samarai is a shadow of its former glory.
Except underwater. Here it has never been better.
Caressed by the notorious tidal currents of China Strait, the wharf piles are havens for a miraculous multitude of marine creatures. Yellow Tubastraea corals, polyps blooming even in daytime, provide a golden yellow backdrop to swirling baitfish, batfish, convictfish, catfish and angelfish – including the elsewhere-rare black Samarai angelfish, now named after Tawali operator Rob Vanderloos (Chaetodontoplus vanderloosi).
A Wobbegong shark is usually resting in the shade of the wharf along with scorpionfish, stonefish, toadfish, crocodilefish and octopus. Care needs to be taken to avoid fishing line snares and sharp-edged clams, and a Port Moresby tide chart is useful to predict Samarai slack current – two hours before and four hours after high tide Moresby. If you have a fancy modern navigation computer you may be surprised to find its information not so accurate.
Current scoured sand gutters off the wharf are good paces to search for old bottles. Lively reef patches edge the gutters where resident lionfish, damsels and feather stars hide the lairs of mantis shrimp. A rusty overgrown anchor juts out from the seabed, an unusual maroon-coloured sea star snuggling a fluke.
For many years the sea has not been the official dumping ground for Samarai rubbish. Old junk is now the home for fish, and a base for coral growth. As Samarai above water continues its decline, its underwater surprises multiply and astonish.
Position – Samarai is a small island off the southeast tip of the mainland of PNG. You can walk around the island in 20 minutes. It is approximately one hour in a speedboat from the Milne Bay Province capital of Alotau.
There are daily flights to Alotau (Gurney airport) from Port Moresby by Air Niugini and Airlines PNG. Flight time is one hour or less.
Accommodation near Samarai can be obtained at the Doini Plantation Resort see
Live-aboard dive boats MV Golden Dawn, FeBrina, Chertan and Spirit of Niugini occasionally include Samarai on their itineraries. Tawali Dive Resort offers day trips to Samarai for its guests. A six night 15 dive package at Tawali costs USD2,206 pp for double occupancy. Live aboard rates pp per night are Chertan at USD285.00; Spirit at USD340 – 360.00; FeBrina at USD395.00 and Golden Dawn at USD350 to 400.00.