Beautiful Bommies and a Sunken Aircraft
By Bob Halstead
Imagine yourself – you have your dive gear on, and are about to enter the water. You have huge expectations; are the legends of this dive site true? Immediately you descend 30 metres to a reef tunnel where massive Potato Cod hang out. Clouds of Bannerfish and swift Black Trevally parade past the red sea-whips, pink soft corals and spiky lionfish. Barracuda, schooling jacks and reef sharks lurk out in the blue. Nirvana! Your astounded eyes fill your mask, and you know that this is diving at its best, ultimate even. Carl’s Ultimate in fact, one of dozens of great dive sites discovered in Papua New Guinea by Captain Craig de Wit.
This was my experience as a guest of my long-time friend aboard his dive vessel MV Golden Dawn, based in Port Moresby. It is famous for its Coral Sea diving adventures to Eastern Fields, just 90 nm southwest of PNG’s capital city. Craig knows these reefs better than anyone, and the diving he has discovered is spectacular. I’ve made several cruises with Craig to this marine wonderland so when he told me recently that he had been exploring along the Papuan Barrier Reef, and was planning another trip, I was eager to join him. I am familiar with many of the Port Moresby dive sites but Craig was determined to introduce me to some I had not dived before. This is my kind of adventure, finning the reef less travelled!
The Papuan Barrier Reef is a substantial rival to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, running 1000km from Port Moresby to Rossel Island at the tip of the Louisiade Archipelago, and has the advantage for much of its length of being much closer to shore. In particular we wanted to explore the section between Port Moresby and Hood Point, 100km to the southeast. The reef shelters a lagoon with many small isolated coral reefs commonly called Bommies, and has a multitude of passes cutting through the reef and allowing Coral Sea waters to flush the lagoon.
Craig picked me up after my short Airlines PNG flight from Cairns. A group of six Japanese divers led by my old friend Toshi Tsunoda were already aboard, and within minutes we were steaming out of Moresby Harbour for our first dives.
“It’s Kite-surfing weather!” proclaimed Craig, trying to be positive about the too-early-in-the-year 25 knot south-easterly trade winds. Craig’s family are keen Kite-surfers and Port Moresby’s windy season is perfect for the sport. In fact it combines well with diving as early morning land breezes from the mountain ranges behind Port Moresby often flatten the seas in the lagoon creating easy passage to the outer reef. In these conditions you can make a calm dive or two until the sea breezes combine with the trade winds to make an exciting environment for Kite-surfing. MV Golden Dawn now offers dedicated Kite-surfing charters for the windiest times of the year, June through September.
With Golden Dawn moored, we took off in the two dinghies over a sheltered reef top to the outer wall. We swam along this wall and down to a sand slope, until we could see a reef rising on the seaward side, and took off to investigate. The water was clear and fishes schooled and swarmed everywhere. Yellow snappers and fusiliers paraded past, and then I saw a giant something flapping below me. It was a huge Black-blotched Stingray, nearly two metres across.
I followed the ray until Craig appeared. There was my photo! We were quite deep at 40m, and it was pretty dark, but the creature was superb. It turns out that this was one of many large stingrays that I saw on our dives. They are well able to defend themselves, and potentially harmful, so I always approached gently, and kept clear of the lethal spine on their tails.
We dived passes adorned with colourful sea fans, sea whips and barrel sponges. On the outer walls Craig “called in” Silvertip and Grey Reef Sharks using a water bottle filled at depth with air, which he twisted to make a simulated distress signal. The sharks came to investigate, disappointed, no doubt, that we were not wounded struggling fish. (Though, come to think of it, the sharks did pay a little more attention to one of the less elegant divers ….)
A diving highlight for me was a broad pass near Hood Point. Reef ridges, only 5m depth on top, edged the pass, descending to 20m and gradually deeper to the depths of the Coral Sea. These reefs were dynamic with soft corals and sea fans and plenty of fish. Scattered on the bottom were isolated bommies crowned by exuberant growths of green Tree Corals. Eagle Rays joined sharks for a swim past. A massive Mangrove Ray with its distinctive white tail appeared, this one too distant for a photo call.
Peering into a coral cave I discovered a resting Tawney Shark. Tasselled Wobbegong Sharks were also great finds. They are bizarre creatures, their tasselled heads and flat bodies making them appear like ornate Persian carpets. They are quite uncommon except here along the Papuan Barrier.
One reef boasted the best little swim-through I have seen, full of colour and fishes. I waved Craig through for a photo. He is not as glamorous as my usual model, but would have to do!
The wind still blew and some sites were out of bounds, but we still managed to get some extraordinary and world class diving. Toshi and his friends were happy and showed off their digital pictures. I stayed on board for a few extra days and asked Craig if we could visit an aircraft wreck from WW2 that had been found in the 1990’s and I had never dived. Craig had not dived it either and did not know its location. We contacted John Miller from The Dive Centre, the local dive school, and asked for help. John kindly gave us the GPS coordinates.
The aircraft wreck was of an early P47 “Thunderbolt” fighter which was making training runs firing on the shipwreck of the “Pruth”, that had been high and dry on the Barrier Reef since 1923. The P47 experienced engine trouble and had to ditch. A witness of the ditching, Don McFarlane, informed Neil Whiting, long time resident of Port Moresby and author of the splendid book “Wrecks and Reefs, Port Moresby” (1994, Robert Brown and Associates). The pilot “ditched his plane superbly right between our Lakatoi (local boat) and Manubada Island.” He saw the pilot pull back the canopy and escape. The plane sank within one minute, but Don rescued the pilot.
Don McFarlane provided Neil with a map of where he thought the plane had sunk and Neil looked for the wreck, but without luck. It was not until several years later that a Hula man, Alu Matapere, out spear-fishing on the reef, rediscovered the wreck, and informed Neil.
Craig set off in Golden Dawn and anchored on a silty bottom 50m or so from where we thought the wreck might be. It was low tide, the wind was still doing its best to look after Kite-surfers, and the visibility was zilch. But adrenaline was rushing, and I even took my camera, though I expected I was more likely to touch the wreck than see it.
The bottom at 20m was just as murky as we feared. I used my compass to track to the wreck – nothing there – so I started a search pattern and swam back and forward a couple of times before thinking I was too deep and should try up on top of the reef. I looked up – and there was the tail of the aircraft silhouetted above me! It was one of those unforgettable images that make diving such a wonderful thrill.
The visibility was actually a bit better on the reef top and I was able to take a few photographs of the intact aircraft. The enormous 18-cylinder engine rests on the rubbly reef, its characteristic four bladed propeller bent back from hitting the water. All the eight guns are in place, four in each wing, the canopy survives, and even the tail wheel is in place.
On surfacing we found that Alu himself had joined us, paddling out from his nearby village. He is quite a diver and able to swim down holding his breath to the aircraft 12m deep. I was happy to go in again and photograph him on the wreck. Alu has a mystical mermaid tattooed on his chest. He is a man of the sea and, though now retired, still spends his days diving the Papua Barrier Reef with its Beautiful Bommies and the superb aircraft wreck.
The trip was over far too soon, and I am already wondering when I can return and share more adventures on the Papuan Barrier Reef with Craig. The next trip will only have one change: there will be blissfully calm seas and no trade winds. You will be able to spot me instantly. I will be the grinning guy asking for tank refills while a group of frustrated Kite-surfers curse Neptune!